Saturday’s assist was Johnson’s fifth of the season. The 28-year-old winger has also scored eight goals in all competitions, setting a career best.
At Borussia Park, adjacent to the lobby, which houses the club’s trophy cabinet of glistening awards of glory years gone by, a sports bar often welcomes members of the squad and staff. It’s also open to the public. Players politely file past fans on their way to picking up their post-training mixed salad.
Here you’ll find Raffael, Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka and the club’s general manager, Max Eberl — a man rarely off the TV screens, explaining the club’s multi-million euro deals — thumbing through the daily paper. Yet rather than a horde of feverish fans, the bar is populated by businessmen and locals intent on lunch and respite from the unforgiving rain. Modesty is the name of the game at Gladbach, and it’s clear to see as fans and players alike kindly mind their business in full view of one another.
Amid it all, Johnson’s profile continues to rise. Within three years, Johnson has gone from Wolfsburg’s reserves to Champions League hero for Gladbach whilst also becoming one of the biggest names for Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. national team.
The German-born star’s story began in Bavaria in 1996, when he began in the youth set-up for second-tier 1860 Munich. By age 19, he was playing first-team soccer for a club famed for its ability to churn out talent.
“It’s hard to tell,” Johnson said when asked about the club’s secret for developing players. “It’s easier to get going there than, say, Bayern Munich. It’s hard if you have to challenge Arjen Robben or Douglas Costa or someone like that. It’s always good that the step from the youth team to the seniors is made quite easy.”
Johnson made about 100 first-team appearances for 1860 Munich before Bundesliga side Wolfsburg came calling in July 2009. Yet surrounding Johnson’s arrival was a sense of constant upheaval around the Volkswagen-run club, with first-team coach Felix Magath losing his job to Armin Veh the very month the U.S. international joined. Over the course of two years at the club, Johnson worked under no less than six managers, including Magath on two separate occasions.
It’s a point in Johnson’s career that he prefers to look back on constructively. “I had a lot of coaches there and played with some world-class players, as well,” he said. “That helped make me the player I am right now. It’s just sad that I only had 16 games there.”
Fortunately for the player, a loan move to Hoffenheim presented itself, and over the course of three seasons in the southwestern village of Sinsheim, Johnson redefined himself as a versatile, quality Bundesliga player.
In his first season at Hoffenheim, Johnson played no less than nine positions. In his second campaign, he was more defined as the first-choice left back before switching to right back in his third and final season with the club.
“No, it’s not usual,” Johnson said of his numerous roles. “We always had problems in a few positions. If the manager was asking me to play a specific position then, of course, I would play there. It’s never best to sit on the bench and just watch the game.”
Yet while some players may allow such a characteristic to tarnish their ability — jack of all trades, master of none — Johnson thrived on it. That ability to play all over the pitch attracted the attention of Gladbach.
However, a World Cup qualifying match against Costa Rica a year before joining the Foals was what ultimately defined Johnson’s role at the new club. When asked why he had started at Gladbach as a winger rather than his more natural fullback position, Johnson explained:
“It was the coach [Lucien Favre]. He saw me a year before and I was playing left wing for the U.S. I told him I could also play that position. Favre used to say I was too attack-minded for a defender, so he put me on the wing.”
After an impressive performance at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Johnson could have succumbed to physical fatigue like many top internationals. Yet he pushed on, and in his debut campaign with Gladbach, he enjoyed a stellar season.
The Foals exceeded all expectation, finishing third in the Bundesliga and earning an automatic qualification spot in the Champions League for the first time since the European competition had been restructured in 1992. Johnson was an ever-present member of that side on the left wing, with crucial assists in victories against top league competitors Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg.
The player’s stock continued rising last August as he entered the current season. Although Gladbach kicked off the league campaign with five straight defeats in his absence through injury — a run that ultimately forced Favre to leave the club — Johnson returned for a Champions League effort that included a victory over Sevilla, two draws with 2015 finalist Juventus and a narrow defeat to Manchester City.
Following Favre’s resignation in September, Gladbach promoted U23 coach Andre Schubert to the role. Initially intended as a stop-gap, Schubert guided the team to an 11-game undefeated run in the Bundesliga, including a 3-1 victory over Bayern Munich. It wasn’t long before he was offered the job on a full-time position.
Johnson scored the third and final goal against the German champions and has continued to keep his role as one of the side’s most cherished attackers.
Schubert shares his predecessor’s appreciation of the American.
“Fabian’s a smart player who’s tactically good and brings with him some flexibility,” he said. “He’s a tactically trained player who gives our game structure.
“Although our entire way of playing has changed in some details, Fabian’s role hasn’t become fundamentally different. Now we attack the opponent a little earlier [in the play]. His speed and willingness to run naturally benefit that.”
The one caveat to Johnson’s run of success came last fall when Klinsmann took issue with the player’s decision to come off during extra time in the 3-2 defeat to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup at the Rose Bowl.
Klinsmann was furious at the player and sent him home before the subsequent Costa Rica friendly at Red Bull Arena to “rethink his approach about his team.” It seemed to be a serious setback to Johnson’s future with the national team.
When asked about the storm that followed, Johnson leaned back and smiled. “That’s why I never talk to the media about stuff like that.”
He added: “We spoke at the next camp I was at. Everything was said, and that’s it. He told me his point of view, I told him my point of view and I got called into the camp again.”
Johnson was back in the lineup for qualifiers against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago.
The Americans will soon regroup for two World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala, March 25 in Guatemala City and March 29 in Columbus, Ohio.
In June, the United States will host Copa America, the biggest tournament on U.S. soil since the 1994 World Cup. When asked if the Americans could challenge the South American powers for the title, Johnson said: “Of course. I just think it’s going to be really hard. We have beaten good teams. We just have to get our mind-sets right and try to focus on this tournament. I’m going to try and enjoy it as much as possible.”
Considering how much enjoyment he’s had on the club stage, Johnson seems poised to continue his ascent in the international theater.