For all of the uncertainty around a U.S. back line that has little World Cup experience and a lack of continuity, there's one player seemingly no one is worried about: Fabian Johnson.
The ambidextrous Johnson, one of of Jurgen Klinsmann's influx of German-born talent, has moonlighted as a midfielder and left winger throughout his 22 national team caps, but he has flourished at right back during the lead-in to Brazil, and you can argue that he's the single most important player to the Yanks advancing beyond group play. If that happens, you can bet the 26-year-old Borussia Mönchengladbach defender will have plenty of attention coming his way.
That's because Johnson will be asked to play two equally important roles. First, it's likely that he'll draw one of the most daunting tasks of any World Cup player in going head-to-head with Mr. Ballon d'Or, Cristiano Ronaldo, who plies his trade on Portugal's left wing. It's hard to imagine a better (or worse) coming out party for a right back than being tasked with shutting down the world's best player and helping an underdog escape the Group of Death.
Secondly, he'll be counted on in the attack. It's clear from Klinsmann's tactics that he wants to leave plenty of room for the offensive-minded Johnson to push forward along the sideline, utilizing his quickness to provide scoring chances for a squad in dire need of them. Klinsmann has recently experimented with playing Clint Dempsey on the right wing. Dempsey often drifts inside, leaving the right channel open for Johnson.
The right back's value was on display in two of the best moments of the squad's Send-Off Series, as he served up Jozy Altidore's drought-busting goal against Nigeria on a platter and smashed home a strike against for his first international goal.
This was the epitome of what Johnson can bring to the table, and you get the sense that he could make an impact just about anywhere, whether in midfield, at winger or in defense. But with Ghana, Portugal and Germany looming, the back line is where he's needed most, and undoubtedly, top-flight clubs thirsty for defenders will be paying close attention to his progress.
The trick might be timing. After turning down multiple chances to re-sign with Hoffenheim, where he'd been since 2011, Johnson joined Borussia Mönchengladbach on a free transfer earlier this year and is under contract through 2018. It was a step up within the Bundesliga, but with Klinsmann keen on his players getting reps at the highest level possible, a payday from an international powerhouse doesn't seem too far-fetched if he shows well in Brazil. And if Johnson's value skyrockets, Gladbach would stand to make a healthy profit after acquiring him for free.
What remains to be seen, of course, is Johnson's ability to perform on the world's biggest stage. And he'll have to do it against some of the best players in the tournament. If he can help stifle the potent attacks that await over the next couple weeks, AND bolster an offense that badly needs to find some fucking goals, Johnson might just find himself in the knockout rounds and on the way to a fat new contract.
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