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The SBI View: Johnson remains best option at left back as Hex looms

Photo by Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports
Photo by Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Fabian Johnson’s versatility makes him one of the U.S. Men’s National Team’s most dynamic players. It also makes him one of the USMNT’s most fiercely debated.

As expected, Johnson was once again named to the USMNT roster ahead of a pair of friendlies against Cuba and New Zealand and, once again, he was listed as a defender. A quick look at the roster reveals that Johnson is all but certainly set to serve as the primary left back for the upcoming matches, a decision that continues to make sense given the current player pool.

The left back spot continues to be a tough one for the U.S. Among the current roster, only Johnson and Timmy Chandler stand out as primary options, even if the two ply their trade in different spots on the club level. Like Johnson, Chandler’s versatility makes him a valuable spot across the backline as he can either fill in at left back or deputize for DeAndre Yedlin at his favored right back position.

Away from the current 22-man roster, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has several options at the left back spot, although few seem ideal. DaMarcus Beasley’s time with the national team is over and Edgar Castillo hasn’t truly impressed in his recent chances with the group. Greg Garza has yet to truly return from a major injury, while fellow Liga MX fullback Jonathan Bornstein has never been called in under Klinsmann.  Options like Brandon Vincent and Desevio Payne remain players for the future, but still need sharpening before leaping into the senior game.

That leaves two options to truly compete with Johnson: Kellyn Acosta and Jorge Villafana. The former has shown well during his appearances at left back, a position he does not play on the club level. Still just 21-years-old, it remains to be seen if fullback is where Acosta’s international future lies, although the FC Dallas star recently told SBI that he feels more than comfortable with the position. Villafana, meanwhile, remains off the radar, for one reason or another. The recent pair of friendlies likely represented the last logical introduction point until next Spring, as it remains unlikely the Santos Laguna fullback would be brought in for a debut against either Mexico or Costa Rica to kick-start the Hexagonal.

With the options laid out, Johnson remains, even if he is a player that could benefit the USMNT attack. On the club level, the 28-year-old remains a legitimate midfield contributor on a Champions League team, even if their early road has been a painful one. Johnson’s ability to contribute in the opposing half is a value to Borussia Monchengbladbach, and it would also certainly be a value to the USMNT.

However, the USMNT as it stands is equipped to replace that value. Christian Pulisic is expected to contribute more and more after recently becoming an even more vital part of the Borussia Dortmund first team due to several injury absences. Paul Arriola, in limited appearances, has shown a traits that can impact matches, and should earn some time over the next two weeks in an effort to solidify his leap to the senior team. Bobby Wood has displayed the ability to be a wide player in a 4-3-3, even if he tends to drift inside quite a bit. Meanwhile, Gyasi Zardes and Alejandro Bedoya both miss out on the current camp due to injuries, depriving the USMNT of two players that have the ability to play in a left midfield role.

Overall, Johnson needs to feature where he is most needed. For years, the left back position has been a position of weakness for the USMNT, but with Johnson in the role, it turns into a strength. At the Copa America, Johnson regularly demonstrated his ability to not only defend the position, but also get forward in a variety of ways. It’s not a banishment or a demotion from the attack, but rather the plugging of a hole with a player that remains the best option.

Johnson remains an asset. His versatility makes him a weapon, one which can be deployed in a variety of ways. However, as the next wave of potential left backs continue to mature, Johnson is best served manning the position as the U.S. heads into some of the most crucial games of the cycle.


  1. I think you’re framing the issue wrong, but of course the answer is Johnson. The real question is, how do you get Pulisic and Johnson on the field at the same time? There’s only three ways to do that, and “play Johnson at LB” is clearly the best of those answers.

    1 – Play them both at the wings. First, this relegates Bedoya to the bench. Second, it means one of them have to play on the right, when they are both more effective on the left. This is the worst option.

    2 – Play Johnson on the left and Pulisic as a central attacking midfielder. This either takes us out of the 4-4-2 (NTTAWT, but it means playing only 1 of Wood, Dempsey, or Altidore, or paying one at RM) or gives Bradley a lot of defensive responsibility.

    3 – Play Johnson at LB and Pulisic at LM. This keeps our formation and solves our LB problem.

    So, yes, of course it is Johnson, now that we have Pulisic. We still need a backup to give us the option of pulling Johnson up when we need the extra attacking power (or due to injury), but plan A is Johnson.

    This didn’t need a whole article.

    • So, play them both at outside AMF. That is the proper solution… if you have a hole in the back, then you go 3-5-2 and move yedlin up too…

  2. Does Frankie Hejuk have any sons and if so how old are they. If not lets try to hook old Frankie up with Megan Klindenberg and breed for the next generation. Other suggested combinations welcome.

  3. The question is really is Villafana better than Bedoya for the collective team or is Lichaj better than Zardes. Obviously, Johnson would be more of an impact on the offense in the midfield, but does have a better offense and a weaker defense affect the team for the positive or the negative.

  4. I’d still like to see Ream get a legitimate shot here. Not sure if it’s because he doesn’t bring enough going forward, but he seems solid defensively, plays the position for his club, etc.

    • I think the conecern with Ream is speed at the international level. When we face speedy wingers FJ would likely have to replace Ream and thus we would have revolving lineups based on opponent, and not be able to build continuity in the back that is so often called for.

      He’s also been primarily a bench and cup player for Fulham this season. His two starts in the Championship and his starts in Cup play have all been at CB.

  5. The USMNT has options at LB, just not great ones. But I find it hard to claim we do not have a viable LB option when so many people have been untested there. I think if we either game more time (Chandler, Shea, Garza*, Ream) to players are called some different ones in (Villafana, Lichaj, even Bornstein) we would have a solution to the LB conundrum.

    I believe the USMNT is a unique situation. For Americans, succeeding at the National Level is how you make steps up in your club career. Some call ups need to be made on potential, and then the player translates a good call up to confidence on their club team. Its not ideal, but it looks to be how being American and playing soccer works.

    • Villafana has never been capped and we don’t even know if he wants to play for the US, to say nothing of whether or not he is good enough. All the other names you mentioned have been tried before and been found lacking, are centerbacks or rightbacks filling in for defense (so offer no attacking width on the left), or are not back from serious injury (Garza).

      • Regarding Villafana ) Call him up and see if he is interested
        Lichaj ) has played LB for club and very little for USMNT. To say he has left anything to be desired after his very few minutes is premature.
        Centerbacks and Rightbacks ) you complain that we are playing people out of position, but your solution is to play a RM/LM out of position at LB?
        On players found lacking ) The offense has also been found lacking in many games thru Klinsmann tenure. Why take away a strength of the offense? Why not groom a long term solution to LB while letting the offense get its groove.

    • I agree with jb here, we simply don’t have any viable options at LB other than FJ. Every single person we’ve tried at LB has had some sort of limitation, including FJ, and there doesn’t appear to be any solutions in the near term. With regards to your comment about plating a FJ out of position , it is out of necessity and the fact that we have other options at LM that can contribute at a similar level than FJ (see: Christian Pulisic), so in this case it is justifiable.

  6. I’ve got a name for you:

    Taylor Kemp.

    Laugh if you must, but we’re talking about a left back that almost had 4 assists IN A SINGLE GAME. His defensive game has grown by leaps and bounds, I think a good playoff push is all he needs to secure a Camp Cupcake spot.

    So, if you’re looking for an American left back, Villafana… and Taylor Kemp.

    • hell. no. and i say that as a dcu fan.

      taylor is a good winger (and, i’d argue, the best crosser in the league), but he can’t defend. you say his defense “has grown by leaps and bounds”; i say it’s simply improved from comedic to just pretty bad (think yedlin with seattle, but without the recovery speed).

      • Should’ve made the switch in his youth days. Many clubs saw the writing on the wall that he could be extremely good as fullback/wingback, but was limited in the attack. Atletico Madrid were straight up interested in him, so long as he would be willing to make the switch to fullback permanent which he refused.

  7. The never ending issue of left back. Never ending as in decades of not having a reliable natuarally left footed left back who’s equally skilled at defending and going forward with the ability to deliver a quality cross into the box. Whats new with the US pool.

    FJ is NOT a left back he just plays the position so much better than any of the natural left backs in our pool. Our player pool and national depth has come a long way but we still can’t find a natural left back who’s equally skilled at defending and bombing forward and delivering cross our wide. Well at least its not Jonathon Bornstein anymore although I hear he’s done alright with Quetearo in Liga MX.

    • The US is not the only place on earth that has this problem. Even the mighty Germans have to move Lahm around… and the Italians have been going 3 in the back for a reason… Argentina have Heinze and Rojo (not exactly Roberto Carlos), the Belgians push Vertonghen out there. I would say only England, Brazil, France, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, and Portugal/Croatia (maybe) are basically set at the position.

  8. FJ is likely the left back for the next 3 or 4 years. After that, well there a host of younger players who could take over, my fav is John Nelson, who needs more time and experience. I also thought Acosta did well there and he could end up being the left back for a few years. Still it is troubling that there are not more choices ready now since injury can keep a player out of games or even end a career at any moment and age will erode a player’s ability to contribute.

  9. I thought Pulisic and Johnson worked very well together (along with Kljestan and Jozy) coming down the left side during the T&T qualifier. I think it is an attacking relationship worth nurturing.

    • Seemed to me like every overlapping run he made from the LB spot was just a decoy to pull defenders away so Pulisic could cut inside. You could certainly say it “worked” because we got the result, but I think we can aim a little higher.

      Despite the results, I do not like Fabian at LB. He links up well wherever he plays because he’s just a good player, but he does not provide “effective” width on the left. He makes the runs, but can’t deliver the service consistently off the left foot. When he plays that spot we are typically very narrow when attacking down the left, especially compared to the right. Most of the time when he does run the chalk line he cuts back onto his right foot to play a back pass or deliver an inswinging cross which is easier for the keeper to spot and attack unless two or three players are crashing down into the 6 to draw his attention.

      Worse, when those attacks fizzle out as they often do, he has to track back and defend which basically means he does twice as much running as he does playing his AMF position for Monchengladbach; and so he tires much easier.

      Yes, players can adapt their skills to play many positions. But starting position is just that, a place to start. Football is about movement and reaction. You can explain the tactics until you’re blue in the face, a player will still ultimately play as his instincts direct him to play, and Fabian’s instinct is to pull inside and attack goal rather than stay wide and cross. Obviously any good fullback can do both, but he is very one dimensional in that respect.

      I don’t get why we seem eternally resigned to playing these guys out of position. We have several eligible players who actually play LB for their clubs. We could, at the very least, have someone who can actually cross with their left foot. I don’t see what the point is in emphasizing club contributions and getting steady minutes if we just ask them to unlearn their club position and play a different role.

      • “He makes the runs, but can’t deliver the service consistently off the left foot…Most of the time when he does run the chalk line he cuts back onto his right foot to play a back pass or deliver an inswinging cross.”

        no idea how to look up stats on this (if they’re even collected), but…i disagree. *shrug* from my recollection, fabian is pretty confident with either foot.

        i also don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that he likes to cut inside up the wing, since pulisic is great at hugging the touchline. adds a nice bit of unpredictability.

      • The point of the article is that there isn’t really a natural leftback of starting international quality for the US, and hasn’t been for many years. That’s why we have to use Fabian there, even if he could be useful in a midfield role.

        Garza was the last natural leftback to play there for us, and I thought he did ok, but I don’t recall him being tested in a meaningful match against tough competition. I have heard JK admit that fullback is a position of weakness depthwise for us, so the fact that we don’t see many prospective fullbacks for these friendlies against weak teams speaks volumes about the lack of options in the player pool.

      • JB – my retort would be that you really don’t know what you have until you bring in players that play the position day in and day out to see if they can hack it. Is it not weird that we bring in a player like Julian Green, who can’t sniff the field at club level but not someone like Villafana or Vincent, who play weekly??

      • Ronniet: Do you really think starting for the worst team in MLS over the last three years (and really without any competition) shows better quality than being in the 18 for the 4th or 5th best team in the world? You are calling for a spaghetti approach, throw any American who plays LB out there and see if one of them can hack it. Matt Doyle at stated it wasn’t injury that had Villafana out of the lineup this weekend, but a benching. Are we saying the key to our LB situation is a guy who got benched by the 17th place team in Liga Mx?

      • I don’t see how you can say the options aren’t there or the pool is thin when Klinsmann has shown no real desire to even try “natural” left backs at left back. At one point Fabian truly was the best option, and he had been forced into that position for club (Hoffenheim, I think) at the time.

        Call up the guys, let them compete, and then you can tell me they’re not better options. And if they’re going to target a guy like Acosta to swap positions to move there, then at least commit to him and let him build some chemistry with the rest of the defense and the left side of attack.

      • Really Villafana is your only viable option that hasn’t been tried, Chandler has had looks there, Garza, has 9 caps, Tim Ream has had games there (plays CB for Fulham), Shea was booted from that spot by his club, Lichaj doesn’t play that position for his club and hasn’t for several years. I think Accosta would have been in this group if not for their schedule, FC Dallas had the Open Cup, CCL, and their push for the Supporters Shield. Plus the way he’s played of late I think he may be a better option to replace Bradley anyway.

      • Oh my dearest fast right leg…

        “I don’t get why we seem eternally resigned to playing these guys out of position.”

        So you’re point is that FJ is NOT a fullback/wingback? Ok ….
        Last season I had this same discussion so I looked up where he has played in his pro career; I forget the exact stats but it was something like 85% of his games were at fullback. Mostly in the past 2 seasons he has featured in the mid some but still has also played fullback. So to me it’s comical when a commenter states with certainty that his ONLY position he plays is midfield. Simply not true. He is a trained fullback that has the attacking abilities to play well in the midfield.

        “We could, at the very least, have someone who can actually cross with their left foot. ”

        So you’re saying he’d Jordan Morris with his left foot? Hardly factual. He has been known for his dual foot nature- to the extent several commentators have noticed it’s hard to tell which foot he prefers. He has said ok many interviews how growing up he was taught by his father to use both feet equally.

        So all in all it just sounds like you read a couple articles saying something and u just jumped on believing it to be fact. try watching his games. Take note that he has vastly more minutes at fullback than mid and is quite notably ambidextrous ….

        But you have the right to whatever incorrect opinion u want. I’ll reside in fact land

      • This notion that fullback is not Fabian’s “natural” position, or he is “out of his position” needs to stop.

        According to Transfermarkt, which tracks the position of players for some but not all games, Fabian has 228 caps tracked, and have come at the following positions:

        70 at LB
        67 at LW
        36 at RB
        22 at RM
        21 at LM
        4 at RW
        3 at AM
        3 at CM
        and 2 at CF

        As you can see, 106 caps have come at the fullback role, or about 46.4%. But wait…

        Since his transfer to Monchengladbach, he has 74 caps with positions recorded. The break down is as follows:
        0 at LB
        53 at LW
        5 at RB
        7 at RM
        4 at LM
        2 at RW
        1 at AM
        1 at CM
        and 1 at CF

        Clearly, he’s seen as a LW there.

        Take away his time at Monchengladbach, the first time since his academy days and German youth national team days, has he been seen as an attacker, and a different story is told. Up until this transfer, he has 153 caps in his career, which came at:

        70 at LB
        14 at LW
        31 at RB
        15 at RM
        16 at LM
        2 at RW
        2 at AM
        2 at CM
        and 1 at CF.

        As you can see, up until his most recent time at Monchengladbach, he has seen 101 caps at fullback, or 66% of his time was spent at fullback almost half of which were at the LB position.

        Obviously, trasnfermarkt isn’t perfect. They’re obviously missing some caps. But its good enough to show us what we already know: FabJo is a utility winger, that can play anywhere on the flanks, and is right now our best solution at LB, and its not even close.

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