Eyebrows were raised when Jurgen Klinsmann announced his final 23-man roster for the Copa America Centenario and not a single natural left back was seen. The confusion soon turned to dread when Fabian Johnson was listed as a defender, making it plainly obvious that the plan is to play the versatile German-American on the back line instead of the midfield position he's excelled at with BMG this season.
The typical Klinsmann backlash occurred when everyone realized that this was likely the case. A lot of "Jurgen, why u do dis?" could be seen all over social media.
It's true that Johnson had a career year for his club playing the left midfielder role. He managed eight goals and five assists in all competitions helping Monchengladbach qualify for the Champions League once again.
Ideally, USMNT fans were banking on Johnson occupying the same position this summer and producing a similar offensive output. The problem is, he is such a talented player with extraordinary versatility that he's the team's best player at nearly four different positions (Left back, right back, left wing, and right wing).
The decision of where to deploy the 28-year-old in the national team's starting lineup now becomes a matter of philosophy and covering up weaknesses. The national team player pool has strengthened over the past six months. Players like Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic, two extremely talented midfielders, have entered the equation. Neither of which are at the level of Fabian Johnson, but when you compare their talent and potential with that of the competition along the back line, playing him at left back starts to become logical.
If you're Jurgen Klinsmann you have to ask yourself a couple of questions. Would I rather have Darlington Nagbe or Christian Pulisic in the lineup in the midfield or have Edgar Castillo or Tim Ream in the lineup on the back line?
Pushing Johnson back to left back makes logical sense to get more talent on the field and to remove some of the weak spots. He is a better left back than anyone in the pool, just as he's a better wide midfielder than anyone. You have to look beyond Fabian Johnson's ability to understand the line of thinking behind this decision. Opening up a spot in the midfield for a more talented player is a reasonable and calculated decision.
However, this plan could look ridiculous if the whole idea behind this is to put a player like Graham Zusi, Gyasi Zardes, or Alejandro Bedoya on the wing instead. All three are fine two-way players who are responsible defensively but don't add much dynamic attacking abilities from the midfield. Sacrificing Johnson's production for this would be a misuse of resources.
The value of moving Johnson to left back comes from the dynamic element you add in tandem with him. In an ideal world he would be able to play in his most productive position for the national team, but when you lack depth in certain positions you have to fill them with the best options possible. Like it or not, Fabian Johnson is the best option the USMNT have at left back and the alternate options aren't as good as they are in the midfield. Klinsmann gets a lot of criticism for some of his decisions. This shouldn't be one of them.