Every week at The Center Circle, we are highlighting a different player in a feature we call “On the Spot”. We’ll take a look at superstars, underrated gems, aging veterans, and young unknowns who should be known. We’ll peruse their club and international careers, taking note of their teams, statistics, and highlight reels. We’ll illuminate their strengths and weaknesses and comment on their personalities and reputations. It will be some fun. If there is anyone you want to see “On the Spot”, feel free to comment below.

Fabian Johnson

Fabian Johnson with 1860 Munich

In recent years, the United States National Team has seen an influx of foreign players into their squad. One of the biggest additions to the Stars and Stripes was German-born defender Fabian Johnson. As the U.S. prepare for their rivalry match against Mexico, we take a look at one of their star defenders.

Munich Man

Before many U.S. fans even knew Fabian Johnson’s name, the defender was developing his game in Germany by spending the majority of his youth career with Bundesliga club 1860 Munich. While the club didn’t have the same accolades or star power that their cross-town rivals Bayern possessed, they were still able to develop Johnson into a battle-hardened first team player.

After a long 10-year spell in Munich’s youth system, Johnson finally made the full jump to the first team during the 2006/07 season. Even though he was still just a teenager at the time, the young defender was still able to appear in a whopping 25 games for his boyhood club during their battle in the 2. Bundesliga (2nd division of Germany). Despite his best efforts, Johnson was unable to help Munich regain a position in the top flight as they struggled for an eighth place finish.

In his second year with the senior side, Johnson was forced to adapt to a new playing style as the club switched managers from Walter Schachner to Marco Kurz. When Kurz took over the club, Johnson’s role in the squad grew as he appeared in 61 games over the next seasons, including 33 starts during the 2008/09 campaign. The increased playing time also saw the defender score the first four goals of his professional career. However, Munich still struggled to compete in the second division, and failed to finish above 11th during Johnson’s final two years at the club.

Bundesliga Debut

Hoffenheim player Fabian Johnson

After a grand total of 13 years with 1860 Munich, Fabian Johnson was forced to look elsewhere for a chance to play in the top flight. During the 2009 summer transfer window, perennial Bundesliga contender VfL Wolfsburg swooped in for the 21-year-old and finally gave him the chance to test himself in the first division.

The move to Wolfsburg didn’t go to plan. Johnson, who had become a consistent starter at 1860 Munich, was forced to accept a role on the bench for the majority of matches. Through his first season with his new club, Johnson would make just ten league appearances (six of those coming from the bench), while scoring just once.

The following year, Johnson’s already small role at Wolfsburg continued to diminish. His second and final year at the club yielded a meager seven appearances through league and cup competition, with just two of those coming as a member of the starting 11. The lack of playing time forced the 23-year-old to once again look for a new place to develop his talent.

The next stop in Johnson’s tour of German football was TSG Hoffenheim. The German-American joined the Bundesliga club during the summer window in 2011 as the club was coming off a mid-table finish where they actually bested Wolfsburg by four spots the year before. Hoffenheim manager Holger Stanislawski had faith in his new signing and almost immediately placed Johnson in the starting lineup.

In just his first year at the club, Johnson nearly doubled the number of appearances he had during his two-year stint at Wolfsburg. The defender started 28 out of his 30 matches for the club while also scoring two-goals and recording a career-high four assists along the way. In a late February match, Johnson earned a little bit of redemption as he played a full 90 minutes during Hoffenheim’s dramatic 2-1 victory over his former employers Wolfsburg. Despite Johnson’s improved form, Hoffenheim were unable to improve upon last year’s finish and once again ended the year 11th in the league.

During his sophomore season at Hoffenheim, Johnson’s role in the squad continued to increase as he started 30 out of a possible 34 games for the club. Once again, the now full-fledged American international contributed four assists (second best on the team) and added another two goals to his record. The 2012/13 season also marked the worst league finish that Johnson had ever experienced during his professional career as Hoffenheim nearly got relegated to the 2. Bundesliga, but a valiant effort in the relegation playoffs secured their spot in the top flight for one more year.

Moving to Monchengladbach

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Monchengladbach

Johnson would spend just one more year at Hoffenheim before moving onto greener pastures. After appearing 12 times for the club in the first half of the season, it was announced that Hoffenheim had agreed to sell Johnson to fellow Bundesliga club Borussia Monchengladbach at the conclusion of the 2013/14 campaign. The 27-year-old would go on to make a grand total of 27 appearances during his farewell campaign as he helped push Hoffenheim all the way to ninth in the table, just two spots away from Europa League qualification.

Similarly to his first year at Wolfsburg, Johnson was forced to split his time between the starting 11 and the substitutes. However, unlike at Wolfsburg, near the end of the campaign the American had finally established himself in the first team as he started 12 of a possible 21 matches following the winter break. His first year at Monchengladbach ended with another four-assist season, a solo goal against Paderborn and a career-best third place finish in the league (good enough for a berth in the Champions League).

After a brief injury layoff to start this year’s campaign, Johnson has once again found himself in Monchengladbach’s starting lineup but under a new manager in Lucien Favre (unrelated to the former Green Bay Packers quarterback). Through his first four league games, he has already scored his first of the season against FC Augsburg. The 27-year-old also made his Champions League debut during a wild 2-1 home loss to Premier League giants Manchester City.

International Career

USA fullback Fabian Johnson

Since the appointment of Jürgen Klinsmann as manager of the U.S. National Team, there has been a trend of recruiting German players with American roots to switch allegiances to the Red, White and Blue. Johnson is no exception to this rule. His father was an American serviceman and basketball player in Germany, and this link made the Bundesliga talent eligible to play for his father’s homeland.

After some delay with the paperwork submitted to FIFA for the approval of Johnson’s nationality switch, the Hoffenheim defender was able to make his international debut in a November friendly against France in 2011. That year, the defender would make just two appearances for Klinsmann’s squad, but it was clear the former German National Team manager had big plans for his newest player.

Johnson would go onto play a key part in the United States’ push for World Cup qualification appearing three CONCACAF matches during 2012. During 2013, the 25-year-old would give perhaps his biggest contributions to date as he provided back-to-back game-winning assists against Panama and Honduras. His impressive displays made Johnson a virtual lock to represent the U.S. during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

As expected, the Johnson made Klinsmann’s 23-man roster for the World Cup, and was arguably one of the best players on the team. Johnson started all four games for the U.S. during the competition before suffering an injury early in the knockout rounds against Belgium. Despite this knock, Johnson received praise from several major pundits with some arguing that he could’ve made the jump to the Premier League had he not already signed for Monchengladbach.

However, Johnson’s latest taste of international competition with the U.S. didn’t go so smoothly. A shocking fourth place finish during the 2015 Gold Cup left fans questioning Klinsmann’s lineup choices, with the defensive unit suffering the brunt of the scrutiny.

Style of Play

As of late, Fabian Johnson has found himself being deployed not only as a fullback, but also as a wing midfielder. The 27-year-old’s pace allows him to quickly join the attack and give opposing defenders headaches, but more importantly it gives him the ability to track back in defense should a quick counter attack breakout. During a friendly against Turkey before the 2014 World Cup, the defensive-minded player showed his competence in the offensive third with his wonderful link-up play with Michael Bradley in the midfield. This combination of offensive and defensive prowess has made Johnson indispensable to Klinsmann’s roster and has seen him grow into a Champions League talent.


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