Halftime Sports

The Mystery Behind America’s Best Soccer Player

November 10, 2015


US Soccer

Theres a good chance that youve never even heard of the man who is currently the best soccer player for the United States of America. No, its not Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, or even Michael Bradley. His name is Fabian Johnson.

The 2014 retirement of the legendary Landon Donovan, who indisputably ranks as one of the greatest international soccer players of all time, left a palpable void in the United States soccer system. The unofficial title of the greatest active American soccer player, which Donovan held for over a decade, was up for grabs. Many expected Clint Dempsey to step up in Donovans absence. As Donovans only true contender for recognition as US soccers finest during the past decade, Dempsey (aka Captain America) had the pedigree and experience to take the crown. However, two factors worked against his claim. First of all, at the age of 32—only a year younger than the retired Donovan—Dempsey is past his prime, with the end of his career lying just around the corner. Additionally, Dempsey made the questionable choice of transferring from the respected Premier League club Tottenham Hotspurs to Major League Soccers Seattle Sounders FC in 2013. The fact is that Americas best soccer player cannot be someone who, with retirement in sight, left the most competitive league in the world for the relative ease of the MLS.

Michael Bradley and Tim Howard, the other two suitors for the throne, face similar complications. Bradley, currently in the midst of his prime at the age of 28, presents a strong case at first glance. Hes played in two World Cups, and has proven his ability at reputable European clubs such as Borussia Mönchengladbach and A.S. Roma. Yet, for unclear reasons, Bradley elected to move back to the MLS in 2014 and play for Toronto FC. Although the quality of the MLS is rising, it simply does not compare to the level of play Bradley experienced during his stints in the German and Italian top flights. How can the best American soccer player be an individual who, at the peak of his talents, departed a world-class club such as Roma for the comfort of the MLS?

Unlike Bradley or Dempsey, Tim Howard continues to ply his trade in Europe for Premier League club Everton FC rather than join the exodus to the MLS. Affectionately referred to as the Secretary of Defense,Howard has been Americas number one keeper for almost a decade and is widely respected as a quality goalkeeper in world soccer circles. However, similar to Dempsey, he possesses almost too much experience. At the age of 36, the end of Howards career is nearing and he has shown alarming signs of decline this season at Everton. Perhaps if he was Bradleys age, Howard would be considered the greatest active American soccer player.

This unusual set of circumstances leaves the title to the German-born Fabian Johnson, a 27-year-old defender who plays for Borussia Mönchengladbach—one of Bradleys old clubs. Johnsons journey to becoming a player for the US Mens National Team is certainly a unique one. Although he insists that he has always felt American,Johnsons ties to the United States are somewhat tenuous. As the son of an African-American serviceman, who played professional basketball in Germany, and a German-American mother, Johnson was born and raised in Munich, Germany. Hes played soccer in Germany his entire life, beginning in the youth system of 1860 Munich and moving on to Bundesliga clubs such as VFL Wolfsburg, 1899 Hoffenheim, and, most recently, Borussia Mönchengladbach. Internationally, Johnson featured for several of the German national youth teams, all the way up to the U21 squad. Yet, through his eligibility as the child of parents with American roots, Johnson was invited to play for the US National team in 2011 by head coach Jürgen Klinsmann. Since taking over earlier in the year, Klinsmann, a former German soccer player, had made it a priority to recruit foreign players with American ties. Thus was the case with Johnson, who agreed to switch FIFA nationalities and commit to the United States national team for the rest of his career.

So what makes Johnson the best soccer talent available to the USA team today? Although many may argue with the idea at first, Johnson is head and shoulders above the rest of the USA squad. To begin with, he plays for the highest level club out of any player on the US national team. His team finished third in the Bundesliga last season, qualifying for the prestigious Champions League, which, along with the World Cup, is the absolute pinnacle of soccer. Johnson, a starter for Mönchengladbach, is the lone American player participating in this years edition of the Champions League. He even scored the winning goal against Juventus in the group stage this past week.

Its not only Johnsons club that sets him apart from other active American players, but his remarkable range of abilities. An individual with the rare capability of playing with both his left and right foot, Johnson can play on either flank of the defense or midfield without any problems. He possesses tremendous pace and stamina; its common to see him burning past players down the sideline during games. Other than a few players such as DeAndre Yedlin and Demarcus Beasley, the US national team sorely lacks players of Johnsons caliber of explosive speed. Along with his rapidity, the German-American has one of the most imposing physiques on the team. He stands at an imposing 6 feet tall with 165 pounds of solid muscle. This type of frame, combined with his outstanding defensive skills, makes Johnson one of the hardest players to match up against on the US team. Along with his defensive prowess, the outside back is also lethal in the attack, as evident in this incredible goal from 2012. Johnson is more than proficient in going forward, with his dribbling, shooting, and crossing skills well above-par. His shooting ability is surprisingly deadly, and he is able to rifle powerful shots from both his right foot and left foot.

Yet, perhaps most remarkable about Johnson is his consistency. While other American players such as Jozy Altidore, Mix Diskerud, and Brek Shea are unable to sustain their tantalizing flashes of talent, Johnsons career has maintained a steady upward trajectory. He moved up from the second flight of the Bundesliga to VFL Wolfsburg in 2009 before switching to Bundesliga club 1899 Hoffenheim in 2011. Finally, in 2014, he arrived at the Champions League-caliber club Borussia Mönchengladbach, where he has staked his place as the starting left midfielder. Moreover, throughout his 40 appearances for the US team, Johnson has regularly turned in good performances—with a notable exception being a recent occurrence in which Klinsmann accused him of faking an injury and lacking respect for the team. This allegation turned out to be false, as Johnson did indeed have a thigh injury confirmed by Borussia Mönchengladbach.

At 27-years-old, Johnson is just entering his best days as a professional soccer player. He may not be another Landon Donovan, but the undeniable fact is that Fabian Johnson is the most talented player available to the US National Team right now. Its time for him to receive that recognition.



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wat

Okay. For God’s sake. Anyone who is American, and is a fan of soccer, has most likely heard of Fabian Johnson.

James

You’d be surprised. Most casual soccer fans here in the U.S. don’t know Fabian Johnson. They can only name the classic players like Howard, Dempsey, Donovan, Bradley