Fabian Johnson and the USMNT's Continued Left Back Dilemma

The final 23-man roster for the USMNT‘s forthcoming Copa America Centenario campaign is out. Not surprisingly, fans and pundits alike had plenty to celebrate and criticize about it. Whether it was the inclusions, exclusions, or what positions players were listed as, there was much to digest. Of particular interest is the curious case of Fabian Johnson.

Jurgen Klinsmann has decided to list Johnson as one of the eight defenders on the roster. The overwhelming expectation is that the US manager will start him at left fullback. While he’s certainly capable and has experience at the position, his club form suggests he might of better use in a more advanced position on the pitch.

Fabian Johnson and the USMNT’s Continued Left Back Dilemma

The 28-year-old had a breakout season of sorts in his second season playing for Borussia Mönchengladbach in the German Bundesliga. Making a total of 26 appearances across all competitions, Johnson scored eight goals and added five assists in nearly 2,600 minutes of game action. This included a tally apiece against Juventus and Sevilla during group play of the UEFA Champions League.

Johnson’s propensity in finding the net for his club this season came in a wide attacking midfield role. His comfort in exploiting space on the wings in the attacking third of the field made him a constant threat to score. And he arguably had the best season of his career in that regard.

So why is Klinsmann once again planning to slot him among the back four? With just two true wingers on the roster (Graham Zusi, Alejandro Bedoya), wouldn’t adding Johnson to the mix aid in the US’ attacking prowess?

The knee-jerk reaction is to harp an accusation against Klinsmann that has become commonplace during his tenure as manager. It’s his nearly maddening tendency to put players in roles on the field they’re not exactly the most comfortable with. We all remember the 36 minutes of hell Bedoya had to go through when he started as a defensive midfielder last September against Brazil. Then there was the short-lived “Jermaine Jones at center back” experiment.

But here’s why Johnson as a wide defender is different from the above examples. Klinsmann really doesn’t have much of a choice given the lack of depth at left back. Part of it is on him in terms of the players he’s included on this roster. Part of it is a deficiency of sorts at the position in the overall USMNT program.

Let’s take a look at both those situations.

Firstly, it must be said that Johnson and Timmy Chandler are the only two on this roster to have played at left back under Klinsmann recently. And there were a few promising players at the position who might have been able to help the squad had they been included. Two players in particular come to mind: Brek Shea and Jorge Villafaña.

Shea has started in nine of 11 games for Orlando City SC in MLS this season. He’s a tall, speedy wing back able to effectively push forward and create wing overloads with the ball near goal. He leads the team in total interceptions, indicating solid defensive anticipation. His weakness is in one-v-one situations. He’s been dribbled past 13 times, which is the worst on the team. The worry is that he might struggle with the team speed teams in the Copa America, particularly Colombia, might possess.

Villafaña helped the Portland Timbers win the 2015 MLS Cup. He was sold to Santos Laguna in the off-season and since then has become a fixture at left back for the Liga MX side. The team would hold eventual CONCACAF Champions League winner Club America scoreless for a combined 192 minutes in the semifinals. Villafaña has U-20 and U-23 experience with the US but has never been capped at senior level.

Both Shea and Villafaña have their own set of strengths and weaknesses. The fact they didn’t get a look from Klinsmann means that Chandler’s the only other viable option at this position other than Johnson. His play at times for the US hasn’t exactly endeared himself to fans of the Red, White and Blue. And that has kind of forced Klinsmann’s hand in grouping Johnson among the back four.

But it highlights a continued issue within US soccer. In order to truly be a force at international level, the system needs to be producing top-level players at every position. The importance of the two-way fullback in the modern game can’t be understated. And it still remains an underdeveloped role for the US, particularly on the left side.

That said, there is a bit of promise heading into next Friday’s Copa America opener against Colombia. Chandler put in two solid games for his club Eintracht Frankfurt in a high pressure Bundesliga relegation playoff against FC Nürnburg. It included an assist on Mijat Gacinovic‘s 65th minute goal in the first leg.

But given Johnson’s overall form heading into this tournament, he appears to be the front-runner to get the starting nod. Unfortunately, it might come at a position that could hinder him in terms of translating the success he had for his club to his country. It’s become an all too familiar refrain during the Klinsmann era.

Whether it’s lack of depth on the existing roster or lack of overall quality in the program as a whole, left back continues to dog the USMNT on the big stage. And the fact Fabian Johnson continues to be an option despite his effectiveness higher up the field speaks to this ongoing dilemma.