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Player Portrait

Being Fabian Johnson: A Natural Born Footballer

The United States men's national team finally has a left back to call its own. Except that he's not from America. Not that it matters. Or something. Ryan O'Hanlon navigates the contradictions.

BY Ryan O'Hanlon Posted
November 29, 2012
5:23 AM
The idea of cool is kind of obnoxious, isn’t it? Like, what does it even mean? Do you know? And if you do, who do you think you are? What makes you the one to know what it actually means? What makes you the purveyor of coolness, or whatever the hell other cool nickname you probably give yourself?

But then I can’t even use the word, can I? Can’t get angry about something that supposedly doesn’t mean anything, right? Well I can, but I shouldn’t—that’s the point.

Whatever it means, though, American soccer is probably not a cool thing. Or it hasn’t been. Maybe it’s been a hipster thing—but ugh, that word, too. But holding court as something like the 20th best soccer-playing nation in the world is just a decidedly mediocre (read: never cool) state of being, especially based on American standards where anything that’s not the best might as well be in last.

Except, I don’t know now.

Fabian Johnson came onto the scene for the U.S. last fall when the team was a cycling wind tunnel of possibly-American dudes, former child stars, and Kyle Beckerman—a time when nothing was settled and nothing really objectively good actually happened. But once that re-blending of the USMNT started to settle and the chaff got spooned out, Fabian Johnson was right there, on the left.

There’s a way to do something—the way that Fabian Johnson plays this sport—that makes it look like you were born to do that thing. It all just happens: you do it because you’ve been doing it forever. Or at least that’s how it looks. It’s like eating or breathing or blinking or walking, but it’s something way more complicated and unnatural and straight-up not-normally human, so it shouldn’t be that easy.

And since American soccer’s really only existed in such a modern, semi-competitive way on a worldwide scale for, depending on the shade of your glasses, two to 10 years, it was sort of impossible to have an American player who grew up with a ball attached to his foot, surrounded by a bunch of other ball-loving babies to compete against, and who grows into the guy who takes a ball out of the air like he’s catching a pillow.

That’s unless you find one who grew up in Germany, which is maybe why when Fabian Johnson volleys a ball that’s three feet off the ground, it’s not a thought process, a weird adjustment of the hips to try to connect with this crazy circular, air-filled thing and send it toward the goal. When Fabian Johnson volleys the ball it looks like he’s hitting it, striking it so naturally, because that’s what you do when a ball sits up like that and this is how you move your leg and lock your ankle and slice into those rubber panels just like you close and open your eyes so they don’t dry up. The game comes naturally to him—an overused phrase, sure—but just not one we’ve ever been able to toss around in this country.

American soccer has always been and still is a struggle to prove that this country belongs, that we can and we should play soccer, too. If anything, that need to prove everyone wrong is the only defining characteristic the game in this country’s really ever had. You fit in by winning, sure, but you fit in because you can just play the game and do it in a way that everyone else will approve. Results mean everything, but also nothing if they’re not achieved in the right way. Remember Greece? No, you forgot; you bought one of those Men In Black pen-things and clicked it enough times to forget about the 2004 Euros because we all did.

Yet, to Greece, Greeks, and Greek fans, none of that matters. And maybe none of this matters, just like that possibly-stupid word. Maybe Fabian Johnson, maybe he’s cool, maybe that’s what I’m trying to say. But maybe I’m not, because again what does that even mean?

I don’t know, but the U.S. finally has a left back, and whatever it means, he looks like he belongs.

Ryan O'Hanlon (@rwohan) is an ASN 100 panel member and an editor at Outside.

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