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Player Spotlight

Fabian Johnson on His U.S. Role: 'I Have to Step It Up'

Now an established member of the United States national team, the 26-year-old fullback will be asked to take on a leadership role within the squad—something the Munich native welcomes.

BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
September 03, 2014
9:54 AM
PRAGUE—The new World Cup cycle is about to get underway for the United States and today's game against the Czech Republic will be a new experience— not only for the young players enjoying their first callup but also for some of the veterans who are now expected to fill different roles.

For Fabian Johnson, 26, his first cycle as a U.S. player could not have gone much better. In August 2011 he switched his international representation from his native Germany to the United States and was an immediate starter who demonstrated the ability to play several positions.

At the 2014 World Cup he was one of the best players for the U.S. before being forced out of the Belgium game in the Round of 16 with an injury. As Jurgen Klinsmann's men look toward 2018, however, expectations are for Johnson to not only to continue to have an impact on the game on the field, but to excel off of it as well.

“I have to step it up,” Johnson told American Soccer Now in Prague. “There are a bunch of young guys now on this team for the game against the Czechs. Experienced players have to step it up a little bit.”

Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann agrees that he is now expecting more from Johnson at this juncture.

“Fabian is now basically making his next big step in his personal career,” Klinsmann said. “Moving from Hoffenheim to a Europa League team, Borussia Monchengladbach, is a big step upwards. Having played a very good World Cup was a big step for him.

"Being 26-years-old puts him into a position where we expect now leadership in our team. So in kind of different areas he has to step it up. He has to understand now that his role has changed, within our teams and within his own career, and embrace it and go from there.”

During the practices in Prague, it was clear that Johnson was communicating actively on the field with many of the team’s younger players, including Stanford University sophomore Jordan Morris. Working closely with the younger players is something that is often overlooked with Johnson but it is something he enjoys.

“I am always trying to help out young and talented players,” Johnson said. “Of course they can’t always know what is right and what is wrong. I think that’s what we are here for. Everybody is trying to help each other out.”

As for the young players on the team, Johnson walked away impressed from his first few days of practice and recalls how he watched Morris score against the U.S. World Cup team in a scrimmage in California.

“I’m kind of impressed. They’re all pretty good, quick. I saw Jordan also in Stanford already. We played against him in a scrimmage. He played pretty good against us," Johnson said with a laugh. "That’s why I think Jurgen called him in. They’re all young, talented players. They have a lot to prove.”

As Klinsmann referenced, Johnson made a big move over the summer, leaving Hoffenheim and signing a new contract with Borussia Monchengladbach, a Bundesliga club with more resources and higher expectations. Last season it qualified for the Europa League through sixth place Bundesliga finish.

Johnson has already played for Monchengladbach in its successful Europa League playoff round win over FK Sarajevo and the club will now play in the group stages against Apollon Limassol, FC Zurich, and Villarreal.

“I think it’s just great,” Johnson said of his move to Monchengladbach. “Every three or four days we have a game. I think that’s what every player wants—just keep playing, not so much practicing. I’m just enjoying it right now even though it’s a lot of traveling and not a lot of free time.

"I think that’s what a soccer players likes the most.”

Klinsmann noted that the fact that Johnson is one of the few American players right now involved in a high-level European competition will only make him more valuable to the U.S. team.

“He’s going to play now a different rhythm because when you play in the Europa League like Sparta Prague does, you play Saturday and Thursday,” Klinsmann said. “You’re playing more games. So you get more challenges and your body has to adjust to it. You have to pick up a higher tempo. All these things he’s going to be confronted with now, not like it was before with Hoffenheim—which is a good team in Germany but it’s not an international team.”

Johnson’s move to Monchengladbach is in some respects a chance to live up to the high expectations that were on him when he was a key player for Germany’s 2009 U-21 team that won the European Championships. That team was one of the best youth national teams in recent memory, and Johnson started in the finals alongside Jerome Boateng, Benedikt Howedes, Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Sami Kheira, and Mesut Ozil—key members of Germany's 2014 World Cup champion squad.

Following that tournament, Johnson moved from 1860 Munich to Wolfsburg and the games never came. His two years there were a challenging time in his life and it wasn’t until he moved to Hoffenheim in 2011 that he began to reset his career and have an impact in the Bundesliga. Now at Monchengladbach, he is aiming to raise his status again.

“Wolfsburg was quite a difficult time for me,” Johnson said. “I played 16 matches in two years. I just wanted to keep playing and get the rhythm back. I have to say a big thank you to Hoffenheim because they helped me out during this time. Now at Monchengladbach I am just trying to prove myself a little bit more and trying to help the team.”

Any discussion of Fabian Johnson tends to focus on what position he will play because it changes frequently. He is versatile and right-footed, but he is nearly as good with his left. He has played both right back and left back as well as in various attacking midfield roles—which is where he played for the German U-21 team.

Johnson laughs when asked the question of where he is going to play at Monchengladbach because he has already played both right back and in the midfield. As of now, his response is simply: “I don’t know yet,” and then quickly adds: “I think [the coach] will find out what is best for me on this team.”

That said, he is hoping that he eventually finds one position where he can settle.

“I think it is sometimes easier if you have that one position you are playing,” Johnson said. “You’re used to it. You have your runs, you have your automatism.”

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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