The right back's overlapping runs have become vital to the Americans' attack going into Thursday's group stage finale against Germany.Jurgen Klinsmann isn't afraid to make the bold decision. Landon Donovan can attest to that. So can John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin.
For all of the attention directed toward Klinsmann's snubs and selections, how he's deployed that U.S. roster is perhaps equally gutsy. After sticking with the flank-friendly 4-2-3-1 throughout World Cup qualifying, Klinsmann in Brazil has cast aside that formation in favor of more compact alignments: a 4-4-2 diamond against Ghana and a 4-5-1 versus Portugal.
Although Michael Bradley's increased creative responsibilities are key, the linchpin to this shift in philosophy is Fabian Johnson. After mostly splitting time between left back and left midfield in qualifying, the 26-year-old has been vital to the USA as an overlapping right back in both group stage matches.
With the USA needing just a draw to seal progression to the round of 16, Johnson figures to again play an integral role as he faces his native Germany on Thursday.
AVERAGE POSITIONS ON MATCHDAY 2 FOR THE USA (LEFT) AND GERMANY
Now that the USA is keeping matters congested in the middle, the fullbacks are relied on heavily to provide width. This is why Geoff Cameron is no longer an option at right back after playing the position for the USA as recently as March. It surely contributed to the exclusion of stay-at-home defenders Michael Parkhurst and Brad Evans as well, with speedier choices Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin traveling to Brazil.
Johnson's pace, decision-making and defensive prowess make him the ideal (and essentially irreplaceable) player for Klinsmann's new system. His strong left foot also adds an unpredictable element, as opponents must respect his ability to cut inside.
During the USA's 2-2 draw with Portugal on Sunday, Johnson repeatedly found himself with room to roam. While Cristiano Ronaldo could have kept him busy, the Real Madrid star instead drifted to the middle, switched sides and did not track back.
In fact, Johnson's average position was so high that lone striker Clint Dempsey was the only player in a more advanced slot. Johnson's forays were already important when the USA had two forwards on the field — the 4-5-1 triggered by Jozy Altidore's hamstring strain made him even more of an emphasis.
Through those 90 minutes, Johnson saw 21 of his 27 completed passes come in the opposing half. To compare, just 15 of left back DaMarcus Beasley's 40 completed passes were in Portugal's end.
Thursday's situation should be similar. Germany, like Portugal, has loosely defined wingers who float inside and swap flanks. Thomas Muller starting as a "false nine," as he did in Germany's first two matches, would further muddle the central midfield channels.
TOUCHES BY MARIO GOTZE (LEFT) AND MESUT OZIL AGAINST GHANA
Marco Reus figured to be Johnson's defensive assignment until the Borussia Dortmund star injured his ankle before the tournament. Instead, Johnson will probably be matched up with Mario Gotze or Mesut Ozil — both playmakers shoehorned into wide roles by Germany's wealth of talent in the middle. (Other options include more traditional wingers Lukas Podolski, Andre Schurrle and Julian Draxler.)
While Gotze and Ozil support the back line more than Ronaldo, who didn't record a single touch against the USA in his defensive third, they're not exactly formidable defensively. Their ability to dictate possession helps keep opponents off the ball, but don't expect whoever starts to provide left back Benedikt Howedes with much support.
As a result, there should still be plenty of opportunities for Johnson going forward — just how Klinsmann drew it up.