Bundesliga Stars at the World Cup – Fabian Johnson

A summer of change beckons for 26 year-old Fabian Johnson. The Hoffenheim defender has already agreed to join Borussia Mönchengladbach on a free transfer, and will be lining up in green and white next season. But Johnson has enough on his plate already, before he even starts thinking ahead to his future with the Foals. First up on his to-do list is trying to improve Hoffenheim’s shambolic backline.

The club has a remarkable record when it comes to goals at both ends. They have both scored and conceded 52 times this season, giving them the third best attack and the second worst defence in the division. It makes them a really entertaining side to watch, although admittedly that’s probably not the case for their fans. The last three matches sum their season up rather nicely: after pummelling Wolfsburg 6-2 they were brought back down to earth by a 4-0 defeat at Schalke, before surrendering a 2-0 lead Saturday to Mainz and losing 4-2.

If the ‘thrash or be thrashed’ mentality does little for the supporters’ states of mind, they can at least feel fairly comfortable about staying in the Bundesliga. Last year Markus Gisdol had to somehow pull the club from the brink of automatic relegation, before leading them to victory in the play-off with Kaiserslautern. This season Hoffenheim are riding comparatively high in 10th and have a seven point buffer between them and Freiburg. That is, of course, with nine games left to play.

Given Hoffenheim’s relatively safe position and Johnson’s upcoming move, it might look like he doesn’t need to perform over the next few months. But that argument would ignore the sizeable elephant in the room that is the World Cup. Johnson is hardly guaranteed a seat on the plane, but his versatility and experience (over 180 senior squad matches with 1860 Munich, Wolfsburg and Hoffenheim since 2006, along with 19 international caps) is likely to help him secure his place in the squad. Being able to play on either side of the defence is a useful trick when coaches have to squeeze as much positional cover as possible out of 23 players, and Johnson has also been deployed on the wing by USMNT boss Jürgen Klinsmann.

Johnson is one of several German-born players set to appear for the USA in Brazil. The number of players who are the sons of American servicemen stationed in Germany is a strange cultural phenomenon, and one that benefits the US national team. Bundesliga veteran Jermaine Jones, now with Turkish club Besiktas, is another member of this group. He only declared for the USA in 2009, and after injury kept him out of the squad the following year, this is likely to be the 32-year-old’s only shot at a World Cup. At the other end of the spectrum, Hertha Berlin centre-back John Brooks is just starting out in international football. The defender has played just three times for the USA, and combined with a lack of playing time at Hertha, that means this tournament comes a little early for him, but he has a good chance of being involved in some capacity.

The trio have been handed an unenviable task by the draw for the group stage. They will be taking on one of the favourites for the tournament, a German team filled with world-class talents, of whom much is expected both at home and abroad. This is a major challenge for the USA, but Johnson, Jones and Brooks will have an extra incentive to perform: the opponent in question is their country of birth. Germany are clearly one of the strongest international teams out there at the moment, one of the few capable of beating Spain at their best or Brazil on home soil. In truth, even those in the USA setup probably doubt their chances against a team containing Philipp Lahm, Mesut Özil, Mario Götze and a string of other players whose talents are already well-known. If that isn’t enough, the other challenges posed in Group G are unlikely to be much easier.

A Portugal side spearheaded by Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo will be hoping to push Germany all the way, and indeed make waves in the latter stages. The rest of the team may not match up to the quality of the star player, but the likes of Pepe, Fabio Coentrão and João Moutinho are hardly pushovers. With Portugal and Germany to come, the USA need a positive result in their opening game, but even that sees them meet Ghana, Quarter-Finalists in 2010 and the team that knocked them out in South Africa and Germany in 2006. Put simply, it will take a major effort for the USA to take points off any of their group opponents, let alone enough to qualify for the Round of 16.

While they have undeniably been dealt a rough hand by the draw, the USA can point to their own record at recent World Cups as proof of their pedigree. They have qualified from their group at three of the last five tournaments, and reached the Quarter-Finals themselves in 2002, beating Portugal in the group stage before their controversial 1-0 loss to Germany in the knockout round. And if the desire to improve on that isn’t motivation enough, certain members of the squad have a point to prove against their home country.

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Oli Moody

Oli is a sports writer based in Berlin, whose love of the Bundesliga started at the same time as his man-crush on Tomas Rosicky. When he's not busy swooning over Juan Arango, he can often be found stealing a living off the German taxpayer at Deutsche Welle. Follow him @olimoody

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