The 26-year-old, who won the 2009 UEFA U21 European Championships in Sweden with Germany, only has one aspiration for the USA, for whom he has made 20 appearances since debuting in 2011, in Brazil: “We’re travelling there to make it into the knockout stages.”
Klinsmann gets his man
Johnson knows it won’t be easy with Jürgen Klinsmann’s side considered underdogs in a group that also features Kevin-Prince Boateng’s Ghana and a Portugal side boasting Cristiano Ronaldo within their ranks. However, the speedy and single-minded winger, set to switch 1899 Hoffenheim for Borussia Mönchengladbach this summer, appears to be full of confidence. It could even be argued that the Nationalmannschaft are in need of a flexible player with qualities similar to those of Johnson.
When Klinsmann opened the door for the experienced wing-back to represent his father’s native country on the international stage though, he succumbed to the lure of regular first-team football. “I’ve got it from both sides,” joked Johnson, whose grandfather on his mother’s side is also of American descent. Back in 2011, however, it wasn’t clear that he would make such leaps and bounds in his development with Hoffenheim and most recently under the guidance of head coach Markus Gisdol.
Old friends, new opponents
The road to international stardom across the pond wasn’t always easy for Johnson, who started out in 1860 Munich’s youth academy before grinding his way through two fruitless years with VfL Wolfsburg, which failed to see him make his breakthrough in the Bundesliga. That happened in Hoffenheim after he was brought in by former 1860 team manager Ernst Tanner to team up with ex-Lions colleague Kevin Volland.
Fast forward three years and Johnson, one of the first names on Klinsmann’s team sheet, is preparing to take on Germany and several players with whom he was crowned U21 UEFA European Champions in 2009, Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil, Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng to name but a few. How he’ll feel before stepping out against the many familiar faces is something Johnson can’t quite imagine at present. “It’ll probably feel really strange,” was his conclusion.
Bundesliga’s American quartet
Johnson has claimed the national team “have a fantastic team spirit” in response to reports in the US press of discord between two factions, with the players born in the States on one side and those who grew up in Europe, such as himself or former FC Schalke 04 and three-time Germany international Jermaine Jones, on the other. According to Johnson that positive atmosphere can be credited to the influence of Klinsmann, who he describes as “incredibly ambitious” and “a fantastic motivator”.
The versatile winger is convinced the US squad will be in peak athletic condition following their pre-World Cup preparations with fitness coach Mark Versteegen, a member of Klinsmann’s backroom staff during his time as Germany head coach. With FC Bayern München’s Julian Green, Timothy Chandler of 1. FC Nürnberg and Hertha Berlin centre-back John Anthony Brooks also on board, few know Joachim Löw’s charges better than the Americans. Whether that advantage will pay dividends on June 24 in Recife remains to be seen.