By Mike Woitalla
There's a very good chance that Fabian Johnson will start at right back for the USA at this summer's World Cup. But he can also play left back, or on either side of midfield.
When he started for Germany in a 4-0 win over England in the 2009 U-21 European Championship final, he played wide right in a midfield that included Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil.
This versatility, which led to a $3.5 million transfer from second division 1860 Munich to defending Bundesliga champion at age 21, Johnson says is thanks to advice from his father.
“My dad just always told me to work on my weaker foot, so I’m almost full-footed,” the 26-year-old Johnson said before training Wednesday at the USA’s camp at Stanford University. “My father also always told me to do my best at every position the coach wants me to play. That’s what I do. Trying to do my best.”
He also credits his fluent English to his father.
“I speak just English with my father because his German is -- I don’t know -- he understands, but his speaking is not so good,” he said.
Charles Johnson, who hails from Michigan, was a basketball player.
“I don’t know if he was pro but he played Bayern Munich,” says Fabian.
Before that, Charles Johnson was a U.S. serviceman stationed in Mannheim, where he met Sylvia, whose father was also American. They moved to Munich, where Fabian was born and started his soccer career with 1860 Munich, which he joined at age 9. He served as a ballboy in Munich's Olympic Stadium as a teen.
In 2011, Fabian got a call from Jurgen Klinsmann and an invitation to the U.S. national team. When he told his parents of the offer, there was no controversy about changing allegiance.
“I told them that Jurgen wants to invite me in and they said congrats,” Fabian said.
At that point, Johnson’s chances of playing for Germany, which he had represented at each age group from U-17 to U-21 from 2003 to 2009, had evaporated. He had been part of the golden generation -- the U-21 Euro 2009 team that, in addition to Khedira and Ozil, included Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng. But during the time that the full national team became a world power again Johnson languished at Wolfsburg.
“After the European Championship, it was quite a hard time for me,” he said. “In two years, I played only 16 games, and that’s not enough for a player who wants to play in the national team.”
A transfer to Hoffenheim revitalized Johnson’s career and caught Klinsmann’s attention. Now Johnson, who moves to Borussia Moenchengladbach next season, is likely to face his former German teammates on June 26 in Recife. What that might be like isn’t something he’s thinking about.
“I’m just looking forward to all of the games -- if I’m going to make it in the squad for the World Cup,” Johnson said. “I’ve never played in a World Cup, so I’m just eager to get into the squad.”