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Fabian Johnson at right back? Yeah, that could work just fine for the U.S. national team

Feb 15, 2014, 3:59 PM EDT

1899 Hoffenheim v FC Schalke 04 - Bundesliga Getty Images

Remember that Fabian Johnson injury we over-analyzed a few weeks ago? Hey, it happens. We see news, we react, and a lot of the time, reality goes in an entirely different direction.

Luckily for the U.S. Men’s National Team, the team’s first choice left back has returned to Hoffenheim’s lineup weeks ahead of March’s match in Ukraine. Johnson should be ready to report for Jurgen Klinsmann.

Today’s return, however, included a slight twist. The normal left-sided player, who can play anywhere from left wing to left fullback, was used on the right against visiting Stuttgart. With nominal right  back Andreas Beck deployed on the left, Johnson made a rare appearance on the opposite flank, going the full 90 in his team’s 4-1 rout.

That he’s back healthy is already a big plus. We talked about the effect of potentially missing another camp. If Johnson wasn’t able to play with the team in Ukraine, May’s call into the pre-World Cup camp would mark eight months between appearances for the U.S. For a team with a lot of moving pieces, that’s a long time to go without being at Klinsmann’s disposal.

Even better, Johnson put in some time at right back, also known as the U.S.’s biggest question mark. Right now, Brad Evans looks like the likely first choice. Michael Parkhurst is still an option, Geoff Cameron starts regularly for Stoke, but for a number of reasons, he projects as more of a through-the-middle option of the national team. With Steve Cherundolo still a major doubt, a thin corps of right backs means players like DeAndre Yedlin are still in the World Cup picture.

But if Johnson becomes an option at right back? Things suddenly look a lot better, particularly given how DaMarcus Beasley has played at left back. Quite simply, would you rather have a team that features Beasley on the left or one that starts Evans on the right?

Of course, there are a lot of assumptions baked into this hypothetical. Johnson has played 90 minutes at right back this year. It’s enough to indulge a fantasy, not a reality. Even if that reality comes to fruition, he may not be as good on the right as he’s been on the left. Maybe the choice isn’t Beasley versus Evans. Maybe it’s Beasley and a diminished Johnson versus Evans and a fully functional Johnson?

For now, it’s fun to think about. Johnson’s not only back, he’s giving U.S. Men’s National Team fans something else to consider. Another option at right back for Brazil? The team could use one.

  1. jimmycrackcorn99 - Feb 15, 2014 at 4:28 PM

    Klinsmann has always favored players who are versatile. This bit of news could be a guarantee to at least be on the plane to Brazil.

    • bear06 - Feb 16, 2014 at 2:12 AM

      Fabian Johnson has been a lock to be on the plane to Brazil and start.

  2. josh907 - Feb 15, 2014 at 4:41 PM

    Evans shouldn’t even go to Brazil and he is certainly not “first choice”? Cameron is clearly first choice. Then Parkhurst and hopefully Lichaj after he performs well against Ukraine. That doesn’t even count the chance of Dolo and Chandler return.
    Johnson shouldn’t play at right back. That would be a terrrible mistake given those options and our weaknesses elsewhere. It’s questionable even if he should play in the defense as the US has thrived with him in the midfield and someone else may be able to cover left back like Lichaj.

    • Richard Farley - Feb 15, 2014 at 4:43 PM

      As Steve seems to have to remind people every time he posts on this matter … people may want Cameron to be first choice, and I may agree with them, but that doesn’t make him first choice.

      For us to say somebody else is the first choice at this very moment? That wouldn’t be true. There’s no way we can say that.

      • boscoesworld - Feb 15, 2014 at 7:00 PM

        Frankly I would prefer Cameron play the holding midfield position in place of Jermaine Jones but that’s not happening either. I see how it works!

      • Sgc - Feb 16, 2014 at 12:45 PM

        I’d like to go ahead and debate you on this. I think the statement that “Geoff Cameron is the real first-choice right back” might well be trying to put thoughts into Klinsmann’s brain, but no more so than “for a number of reasons, he projects as more of a through-the-middle option of the national team.”

        The one thing we pretty much know in this whole scenario is that Cameron is NOT first choice holding mid for the team. We’ve seen plenty of times than when Bradley and Jones are healthy and in form, Bradley and Jones are playing.

        It’s been a long time since we’ve had the first team out there for a game that actually meant something. The Honduras WCQ, we didn’t need the points. (And by the way, Evans was yanked at 56 in that one). In the Jamaica and Costa Rica games, Bradley was unavailable, and we didn’t have our full set of choices. In the Mexico game, we played Johnson and Parkhurst at RB.

        Even if we go to friendlies, the last one we played in 2013 (vs Austria), Cameron started in preference to Evans. The game before that, Klinsmann started them both. Since Cameron was unavailable for South Korea, that takes us all the way back to last June, before the Premier League season started, and really before Cameron began playing the same position every week with Stoke. (In the last three games of last season, Cameron was a sub twice, and one of those was as a mid.)

        So, in the absence of much recent evidence, it’s hard to prove either way whether Cameron will be Klinsmann’s first choice RB or Evans will.

        But knowing there’s no proof either way, if we’re going to predict, I think it’s fair to go back to plausibility. Would Klinsmann choose Evans, who doesn’t play RB every week, over Cameron, who does, just because he likes Cameron a little better at central midfield, even though Cameron is still not first choice there? Does that actually make sense?

      • bear06 - Feb 17, 2014 at 2:24 AM

        @Sgc: Cameron is probably the #1 RB atm.

    • midtec2005 - Feb 15, 2014 at 5:06 PM

      Evans will be on the plane, lets not forget that he also provides depth in the midfield (although I think everyone else would have to get hurt for him to play there). Quite frankly, I think he’s a better RB than Parkhurst and definitely Lichaj. I’d choose Cameron as my starter, probably, but we still need to see what he does there. I bet Cameron starts at RB against Ukraine.

      • josh907 - Feb 15, 2014 at 5:11 PM

        We don’t need midfield depth. Our midfield is heavy as it is. Bedoya and Zusi are preferred wingers over Evans and Kljestan and Diskerud are preferred cms to Evans. There is no need for Evans who is incredibly slow.

      • midtec2005 - Feb 15, 2014 at 7:12 PM

        I kind of acknowledged that he isn’t likely to play at midfield…. I was just pointing out the versatility, which is never a bad thing.

    • schmutzdeck - Feb 15, 2014 at 5:43 PM

      At right back for Stoke Cameron looks like a center half playing right back.

      Lichaj is injured and may not make the Ukraine game anyway.

      Johnson spent a lot of time at right back and right midfield for Hoffenheim before they moved him to the left side. The question is not whether FJ can be the right back, it is whether he is needed more elsewhere.

      • bear06 - Feb 16, 2014 at 2:14 AM

        Umm no. Fabian Johnson has played the majority of his games for Hoffenheim at LB/LM.

      • schmutzdeck - Feb 16, 2014 at 10:43 AM


        Fabian has spent most of his time on the left.

        However, as I wrote, he started out on the right, fullback and midfield and is considered an option on either side at fullback and midfield.

        In fact he has played at all four places for the US and for his German teams.

      • bear06 - Feb 17, 2014 at 2:26 AM

        Yes, but you said he spent a lot of time at RB and RM but in reality he only played there for a few games.

    • onelovesoccer7 - Feb 18, 2014 at 1:21 PM

      i have to agree with you, i’m seriously doubting if Evans is worth bringing. harsh? absolutely. but it’s the reality. he has the Mexico game to redeem himself.

      but if Lichaj can’t get healthy in time for Ukraine, i think he is out. Dolo has a very long way to go. Chandler certainly still has a chance, but that 8-10 weeks out if going to make it iffy. Parkhurst seems like he’ll end up making it unless he just completely stinks it up in MLS. so Evans is still very much in the picture.

    • gra42 - Mar 19, 2014 at 11:33 PM

      Sorry, but Johnson’s best games, and the MNT’s best IMO, were those that he played at left back, including the Brazil and Italy matches as well as a couple of quals. He didn’t look any better than any of our other mids, especially against Costa Rica, when he started in the midfield. Neither did our team play as well; with as much build-up or shots on target. When he played in the back we were a tactically compact and cohesive unit that had other sides backpedalling and chasing. In his midfield starts, we went right back to hoping for good chances and opponent mistakes.

  3. josh907 - Feb 15, 2014 at 5:01 PM

    He is first choice because Klinsman thinks he is first choice, not because I do. He started there the last time he was available and clearly outperformed the other options. That added with the terrible displays by Evans and club careers means Evans shouldn’t even be in the conversation.

  4. vin904 - Feb 15, 2014 at 5:26 PM

    I would like to see Cameron start as well for his attacking value. But watching his games for stoke it seems like he’s an average defender. So I can see where Klinsman isn’t sold yet. But with what options we have there’s no way he isn’t starting RB when all is said and done.

    • gra42 - May 28, 2014 at 2:24 AM

      I agree, it’s going to be a lesser of two evils, or filling the biggest need for JK at RB. But Cam did some phenomenal work at CD in one game against Mexico in Azteca, and JK has just come out this week saying that he thinks Cameron’s natural position is CD.

  5. schmutzdeck - Feb 15, 2014 at 5:29 PM

    FJ played right back and right midfield for Hoffenheim when he first joined the USMNT.
    For that matter Danny Williams played those positions for Freiberg before he went to Hoffenheim.

    Fans are a lot more worried about the full back slots, left and right , than JK is.

    • Richard Farley - Feb 15, 2014 at 5:47 PM

      Thanks for mentioning this. I ended up not including this in the post b/c I couldn’t locate the last time he played on the right (and, honestly, wanted to get this up). It was easy to see he hadn’t played over there this year, so I went that route. Thanks for adding the context.

      “I love it when [the internet] comes together.”

      • schmutzdeck - Feb 16, 2014 at 10:48 AM

        At one point, it looked like JK was contemplating Dolo at RB, Chandler at LB and Johnson at left midfield. Donovan was a ? at that point.

    • bear06 - Feb 16, 2014 at 2:15 AM

      No, FJ has played the majority of his games for Hoffenheim at LB/LM.

      • onelovesoccer7 - Feb 18, 2014 at 1:27 PM

        “FJ played right back and right midfield for Hoffenheim when he first joined the USMNT.”

        note the key words “when he first joined.” he is right. in 2011 Fabian Johnson was playing RM for Hoffenheim. he also played RM for the German U-21s. Google, use it.

      • bear06 - Feb 19, 2014 at 1:34 AM

        Umm no. You’re wrong onelovesoccer7. Fabian Johnson did play RM/RM for Hoffenheim, but it was only for a couple of games at the start of the 2011-2012 season and that was about it. And F. Johnson played LB most of the time for Germany’s U21 team, especially when they won the U21 Euro Cup back in 2009 I don’t need to use Google like you since I have watched Hoffenheim’s games for the last 3 seasons.

      • onelovesoccer7 - Feb 19, 2014 at 6:49 PM

        i’ll start with this quote from Klinsmann when FJ first joined the US:

        “Fabian is interesting. He has a special vision. He can play a killer ball, which is rare. He’s a player who can do most everything on the ball. I see him as a connecting forward, but he has the ability to help on the right side of midfield or in the back, which is a nice thing to have.”

        i then went to espnfc and looked at every Hoffenheim game from 2011/2012. he started off the year at LM for the first 3 games and then started at RM the next two games. then he was out for 4 games due to a back injury. came back on 10/22 against ‘Gladbach as the right-sided CM in a 4-2-3-1. the next game he subbed in as a CM in a 4-4-2. next game back to LM. then he plays for the US against France on the right side.

        comes back from international break and starts at RM against Hamburg. next game he plays RB. against Leverkusen he is back to LM and finishes up the last two December games at LB. first game back from winter break against Hannover, off the bench as a RM. then he played RW in a 4-3-3 against Dortmund, the next game, in which he scored. after that, it was LB and nothing else for the rest of the year but that’s not relevant as the original post was regarding when he first joined the US.

        so, that would be 7 games at RM/RW/RB around the time he joined the US, plus the USA v. France game in which he was on the right. about 8 appearances. he had 7 appearances at LM/LB in that same amount of time (like I said, i stopped after January 2012) plus against Slovenia he was mostly on the left. so 8 appearances.

        so i guess we can call this a “push.” he basically played on both sides evenly. but at the time he joined the US, he was racking up minutes on the right more than the left.

      • bear06 - Feb 20, 2014 at 2:06 AM

        Fabian Johnson has only played 5 games at RM/RB for Hoffenheim and that was early in the 2011-2012 season. Since then he has played all his games at LB/LM until last week against Stuttgart.

      • onelovesoccer7 - Feb 20, 2014 at 3:13 PM

        using that site, i count 5 times at LM/LB prior to February. as you said, 5 times at RM/RB/RW in that same time frame. so again, he played both positions about the same at the time he joined the US. and even Klinsmann said he thought he would be on the right (“right side of midfield or in the back”). by the time he finished the season at LB, he was already a part of the US.

      • bear06 - Feb 21, 2014 at 2:15 AM

        You have a link to Klinsmann saying that? Because I don’t remember Klinsmann ever saying that Fabian is going to be a player on the right. He can play there but he’s best at the left side of the field.

      • onelovesoccer7 - Feb 22, 2014 at 6:38 PM

        yes, how do you think i found it?

      • bear06 - Feb 23, 2014 at 3:31 AM

        It shows how versatile he is but he’s still best at the left side of the field and he will continue to be mostly a left sided player for the U.S. MNT and for Borussia Monchengadblack next season if he does move there.

      • onelovesoccer7 - Feb 24, 2014 at 7:40 PM

        of course now he has played RB in the last two games for Hoffenheim. either way, it’ll be interesting to see how Leverkusen uses him.

      • bear06 - Feb 25, 2014 at 9:24 AM

        Leverkusen? He just signed with Borussia Mönchengladbach and will join them in the summer after the WC.

      • onelovesoccer7 - Feb 25, 2014 at 11:56 AM


      • gra42 - May 30, 2014 at 3:30 AM

        @ Onelovesoccer7: After starting against France at RB, he went on to start against Brazil, Italy, Scotland, and at least one other qual at LB. In the second debacle against Costa Rica, he started for the U.S. at LM, and the Ricans pressed Beasley (at LB) so hard that FJ got no real service from him, and they also man-marked FJ so that he was facing our own goal nearly the entire game. So even if JK and the press haven’t figured out that key to beating us, the best team in our group sure did. The results were a little different against teams depending on their strength, but every time he started at LB he got some of the Nats’ highest game performance ratings, and several key assists. Our entire team played with more possession and shots on goal whenever he was a defender.

    • bear06 - Feb 17, 2014 at 2:29 AM

      Donovan was injured but he would have probably played at RM. I think he will be playing at RM for the U.S. in the WC.

      • gra42 - May 28, 2014 at 2:20 AM

        HE’s looked good there in the past for sure, but I think the reason he was cut (if he was being considered as some thing other than a forward) is that JK knows we’ll be relying on raiding FBs, and he would want an outside mid that can cover consistently for the overlapping defenders. Landon aint’ got time fo’ dat.

    • onelovesoccer7 - Feb 18, 2014 at 1:25 PM

      yeah, i’m pretty sure Johnson has stated in the past his favorite position is RM. that is where he played for the U-21 Germans, including the European Championship game against England in which they won 4-0. like you said, he also played there for Hoffenheim, including when they beat defending champs Dortmund back in 2011.

      • bear06 - Feb 19, 2014 at 1:36 AM

        Again you’re wrong onelovesoccer7. You’re probably confused but F. Johnson stated that LM is his favorite position, but he can also play LB/RB/RM if the team needs him there.

      • onelovesoccer7 - Feb 19, 2014 at 6:54 PM

        bear – i may have remembered that wrong, but all i can find is him stating he prefers playing out wide in the midfield. nothing explicitly stating LM is his absolutely favorite.

        “But that’s true, I don’t really have a definite position. I like playing high up the pitch, but even as a full-back you can still get forward, so I don’t mind really.” – Hoffenheim website

        “In the last game against Slovenia I played in the midfield. I think that’s where he will continue to play me but I don’t know if it will be in the center or outside. I like both the outside and center very much. I like it when I am on the outside and I can move in. I also like moving from the inside out.” – Yanks Abroad

        “…possibility for the US team particularly at the left back, Johnson insists that it is not his best position. ‘I prefer to play in the midfield,’ Johnson said bluntly. ‘But we haven’t talked about playing in the back yet. We will see in the future.'” – Yanks Abroad

      • bear06 - Feb 20, 2014 at 2:09 AM

        He probably meant LM since that is where he has been the most dangerous for Hoffenheim and the U.S. MNT.

      • gra42 - Mar 19, 2014 at 11:37 PM

        But his and the MNT’s best play have come when he started at LB.

  6. booger1234 - Feb 15, 2014 at 6:37 PM

    Leave Johnson on the Left and keep Evans on the Right or have Cameron on the Right. I would rather have Johnson and Evans as backs then Beasley and Johnson. Have Beasley as a backup and Evans to if Cameron gets the start.

    • bear06 - Feb 17, 2014 at 2:29 AM

      F. Johnson at LB and Cameron at RB.

      • frankiefablo - Feb 17, 2014 at 6:14 PM

        Yes bear06, Johnson at LB and Cameron at RB! Yes, yes, yes. And why not? Truthfully, and some may disagree, but our central defense is not as strong as it was in 2010. While Gooch was afflicted with the occasional clearance-straight-sideways bug, we cannot discount the effect of the punishment that he and “Rooney’s worst nightmare” Jay DeMerit inflicted on opposing teams’ forwards.

        Our current options in central defense may be slightly better technically but lack the ability to impose their will on teams like Germany and Ghana. JK has worked hard to transition this team away from a “punt and play defense” style, so why not include two marauding fullbacks in the first team? The style of play will be unexpected from an American side and may force opposing forwards and wingers to drift further back into defense, thus lessening the pressure on our young central defense.

        Just a thought. I mean, we are playing Germany, Portugal and Ghana. It can’t hurt.

      • gra42 - Mar 19, 2014 at 11:56 PM

        @ Frankiefablo: It’s not just conjecture. FJ actually did start his first several games for the MNT at left back, including the Brazil game and against Italy too, and we’ve never looked better.

  7. el timo - Feb 15, 2014 at 8:38 PM

    None of the above-mentioned alternatives to Cameron at RB have played at the level he has for Stoke this year, and played well, defensively and offensively. Not even close. Whatever anyone imagines Klinsmann thinks about the matter, the coach is not going to weaken his team by playing around with his backline: Cameron, Gonzalez, Besler, and Beasley. The battle there is for second-string.

    • bear06 - Feb 16, 2014 at 2:17 AM

      You do know the Bundesliga is also one of the best leagues in the world, right? JK might keep F. Johnson at LM or he might bench Beasley and bring Fabian back at LB.

      • mknow406a - Feb 17, 2014 at 1:30 AM

        There is a real issue of a lack of depth at LM. Neither Zusi or Donovan are “great” on the left. Landon has more discipline, and more of a left foot, but still he drifts to the middle too much when on the left. Zusi has been forgettable on the left for the USMNT. The FJ at LM provides a natural leftie and he has the experience to track back and help out Beasley at LB.

      • bear06 - Feb 17, 2014 at 2:31 AM

        Yeah, F. Johnson has really helped the offense when he’s been at LM but the team might need him to go back at LB because Beasley might not be good enough defensively against the likes of Germany and Portugal.

      • gra42 - Mar 19, 2014 at 11:43 PM

        Not as much as he helped the offense when he played LB. What “helps our offense” is having a guy come out of the back like FB did and forcing the other team to abandon it’s build-up posture and chase our attackers. Jozy got his easy 2-3 goals when FB was playing defender, and we had our best showing when FJ started against Brazil from the LB as well. We didn’t win, but those were more than half of the Brazillians that will be in the WC, and the score didn’t reflect the character of the game.

      • bear06 - Mar 20, 2014 at 3:27 AM

        FJ helps the offense more when he’s at LM but it might be best if he plays at LB since he’s a better defender than Beasley.

      • gra42 - May 28, 2014 at 2:36 AM

        Agree that he is much better than Beasley in defense. Beasley came up in the USMNT as a LM all the way to his first W.C. in ’06. Arena then decided to do the ill-fated three way player experiment against the Czechs, including playing Bobby Convey at LM and switching Beasley to the right, and history shows how that worked out: It cost us advancement. Beasley was back at LM for the Italy and Ghana games, and we were a much better side for it. The only reason Beasley ever got switched to defense later in his career was that all his injuries robbed him of his speed and dribbling, which he had in spades until his mid 20s.

  8. bellerophon30 - Feb 16, 2014 at 8:21 AM

    It sounds like the Cameron at RB for the USMNT ship has sailed. If Jurgen hasn’t embraced it by now, he’s not going to. Still, Brad Evans is not the answer, so let’s hope that Parkhurst really nails it those first two months at Columbus.

    • bear06 - Feb 17, 2014 at 2:33 AM

      Umm what? Cameron played at RB for the U.S. against Austria back in November and after Evan’s below average performance against S. Korea I see Cameron starting there against the Ukraine.

      • gra42 - Mar 19, 2014 at 11:45 PM

        Oddly enough, his best game for the U.S. in defense may have been when he started in the center alongside Omar at Azteca a couple of years back.

      • bear06 - Mar 20, 2014 at 3:28 AM

        He has never started in the center for the U.S. You’re confusing him with another player.

      • gra42 - May 28, 2014 at 2:09 AM

        Agaisnt Mexico at Azteca, he partnered with Omar. I’m referring to Cameron.

      • gra42 - Jun 8, 2014 at 2:09 AM

        No, he started at CD alongside Omar in the Azteca win and one other qualifier.

    • onelovesoccer7 - Feb 18, 2014 at 1:31 PM

      when Klinsmann was talking about Cameron being a CB and wanting him to overtake a CB at Stoke, this was before Cameron played a large majority of the season at RB. Cameron, since then, has gone on to start every game at RB for Stoke. and not only that, he has shown he can join the attack well (something i thought he did NOT do well before) and has been solid defensively. my guess is Klinsmann will use Cameron at RB.

      • gra42 - May 28, 2014 at 2:10 AM

        Not what Klinnsman says he he wants for Cameron.

      • gra42 - May 28, 2014 at 2:15 AM

        Not that I don’t want Cameron to play right back, or that I don’t think he’s better than what we have there now, or that he hasn’t actually done well there. It’s just that the best performance I’ve seen him put in was against the young Mex team at Azteca when we won. As recently as this week JK stated after the camp that he thought Cam’s best position was CD. I agree, but by no means would be worried if he played RB.

      • onelovesoccer7 - Jun 2, 2014 at 4:28 PM

        Gra – dude, this was posted in February. how could i include analysis on stuff that hadn’t happened yet….?

  9. onelovesoccer7 - Feb 18, 2014 at 1:18 PM

    i think it’s great he can play there, but i don’t think there should be any question that Cameron is our RB and Johnson is the LB. Cameron is in form at RB right now. he has played there all season and his thought process is at the RB position. not CB, not CDM. that should not change given the situation we have right now. i’m not comfortable with Beasley at LB at the World Cup. he has not looked great there for Puebla and it’s a completely different system there.

    because of that, i’d like to see Johnson at LB and Cameron at RB.

    • gra42 - Mar 19, 2014 at 11:51 PM

      Yeah, I’m not sure how anyone can say our best results were in games that Cameron played as a midfielder or the right side. I think there was a meme gong around in the press during FB’s early MNT games that internet writers just couldn’t drop about him starting those games from the midfield. This despite the line-up graphics at the beginnings of those games clearly listing him as a defender, and his constant presence as our farther player back on the left side. Having said that, I thought that Cam’s best game for the U.S. was his start in the central D along Omar. That actually may have been the best game a MNT central d pairing has shown in a really long time, since the ’02 Mexico WC game.

      • gra42 - Mar 19, 2014 at 11:52 PM

        “how anyone can say our best results were in games that CAMERON played..”

        Typo. I meant JOHNSON.

  10. gra42 - May 28, 2014 at 2:43 AM

    And nobody is mentioning Cameron’s career with the Dynamo at LB, almost excessively for two years with some d-mid starts sprinkled in! I actually worked for the Dynamo prior to that and ran into their Captain at the time Cam had just injured his knee. We both agreed that if Cam were to continue in the MLS at that position, he’d be an all-timer and a shoe in for many nat caps.

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