Johnson and Arena meet in the middle
U.S. national team veteran applauds position switch set in motion by new coach.
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Until last winter, all that Fabian Johnson and Bruce Arena knew about each other was what they had heard from others. So when Arena was named coach of the U.S. national team two games into the final round of World Cup qualifying, one of his first trips was to Germany to meet with Johnson.
“Just to get to know each other and talk about the position where I’m feeling the most comfortable,” Johnson remembered of Arena’s agenda for their two winter meetings. “Those kinds of things.”
Turns out those were also the kinds of things Johnson wanted to discuss with the new coach. As a club player in the German Bundesliga, Johnson has played primarily as a winger. Yet in Johnson’s five years with the national team, former coach Juergen Klinsmann used him as an outside back.
As a result, the transition between playing for club and country was sometimes difficult. So when Arena told Johnson, 29, he wanted to keep him in the midfield, it was welcome news.
“That’s my position, where I feel most comfortable. And what I’m used to,” Johnson said Monday as the U.S. began preparations for Thursday’s World Cup qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago in suburban Denver.
It’s also a position where, arguably, the U.S. needs help after Galaxy midfielders Jermaine Jones (knee) and Sebastian Lletget (foot) were sidelined because of injuries since the last round of qualifiers.
Johnson, who plays for Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Bundesliga, sat out the March qualifiers because of an injury of his own. A thigh strain delayed his first start for Arena until last Saturday, when he played 62 minutes as a wide midfielder in a listless friendly against Venezuela that ended in a 1-1 draw.
And Johnson, who got the assist on Christian Pulisic’s goal, wasn’t the only player that Arena was coaching for the first time. Forward Bobby Wood (Hamburg) and defender DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle) also get their first starts under Arena.
“We’re still feeling each other out,” Arena said. “Now we’re a week in, getting to know Fabian and Bobby Wood, DeAndre.
“They have to understand the things we’re trying to do and I don’t think we’re there. Saturday’s game was good to show some of the issues we had and correct them and be ready for Thursday.”
Johnson said the issues were simple.
“We have to create more chances,” he said of a U.S. team that managed only two shots on goal against Venezuela. “We have to use the space a little bit better.”
Johnson said the tightest part of the learning curve for him dealt more with the style and structure of play under Arena than in developing a chemistry with his teammates, many of whom he has played with previously.
“I’m comfortable with the group,” he said. “Of course I have to adjust a couple of things. Different schedules, the way we’re playing, the way we’re trying to approach the game. The whole staff changed but the players are still the same and I know those players.”
Oft-injured center back John Brooks, who left Saturday’s game early in the second half because of a bruised quadriceps, sat out part of Monday’s training session before hobbling to the team bus with his right thigh wrapped in ice. His status for Thursday — as well as for Sunday’s game against Mexico — is uncertain, Arena said. … Wood, Yedlin, Pulisic, goalie Tim Howard and defender Jorge Villafana did not train at all Monday after playing 90 minutes Saturday.