Fabian Johnson was having dinner with his girlfriend in a Munich restaurant one evening last August when his cellphone rang. He looked down and it said “unknown caller.’’ Turns out that could not have been further from the truth. The unidentified caller was, in fact, very well-known.
“I answered, and I heard: “This is Jurgen Klinsmann,’’ Johnson recalled Wednesday, lounging in a Miami hotel lobby following a U.S. men’s national soccer team practice. “It was a big surprise, and I got very happy. I grew up in Munich watching Jurgen play for Bayern Munich and the German national team, so having him call me was a big honor. He told me he had seen me play in Germany and wanted me to come to camp with the U.S. team, see how they do things here, and see if I want to be part of the U.S. team.’’
Johnson, 24, held dual citizenship because his mother, Sylvia, was born in Germany to an American father and German mother, and his father, Charles, a Michigan native, was stationed in Germany with the U.S. military. He is one of four German-American players on the United States roster for Friday’s World Cup qualifier at Jamaica, the result of a concerted effort by the U.S. Soccer Federation to cast its net far and wide in search of talented players with American blood — and passports.
The other dual citizens with German roots are midfielder Jermaine Jones, midfielder Danny Williams, and forward Terrence Boyd. Johnson and Williams are teammates at Hoffenheim in the German Bundesliga. Jones plays for Schalke 04, and Boyd plays in Austria for Rapid Vienna.
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All four players’ fathers are American-born and were stationed in Germany with the U.S. military.
Johnson was born and raised in Munich. Although his father played pro basketball in Germany, Fabian’s first love was soccer. He started playing at age 4, and by 9 he had joined the 1860 Munich youth system.
He has always been quick, adept with both feet and versatile. He is also known for his field vision. He can play anywhere in the midfield or backline. Three years ago, he lined up alongside Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira and helped Germany to a 4-0 win over England in the Under-21 European championship. In 2010, Ozil and Khedira had moved on to the German World Cup team.
Johnson was not sure if he would make the German senior roster, so when Klinsmann called, he figured it was an opportunity worth exploring.
“It was a great chance for me to learn another way of playing, to see how the American system works,’’ said Johnson, who speaks excellent English, despite having visited the United States only twice on vacation (once to New York City, and once to Miami). “The United States is so different in every way from what I grew up with. Everything here is big, and people are open-minded. It has been a great experience for me.’’
Johnson has fit in nicely at left back, a position that has been an Achilles heel for the U.S. team for many years.
Among the players who have been used there since the 1998 World Cup are David Regis, Frankie Hejduk, Jonathan Bornstein, Heath Pearce, Carlos Bocanegra and Eric Lichaj.
He has also had no trouble melding with his teammates. It helps that so many of them speak German, as does Klinsmann and Steve Cherundolo, the captain at Hannover, where he has spent his entire 13-year career.
He said he feels every bit American as he does German. “I have always felt that I’m a mix of both, so I am proud to play in the U.S. jersey,’’ he said. “My dad was happy, too.’’
Those are exactly the words Klinsmann wants to hear.
“We are trying to be proactive,’’ Klinsmann said recently, when asked about calling up dual citizens. “At the end of the day, it’s the decision of the player and his family which country he wants to play for, but we don’t want anyone to say we didn’t try. Other teams around the world are also melting pots. Look at the German team, with players from Tunisia and Turkey and Poland. The French team in ’98 had a lot of African influence.
“It’s all part of globalization. American families are spread out through business and the military, but they are still Americans. It’s a wonderful thing, and we are tapping into it. These guys grew up in football-driven countries and went through a technically different kind of educational path than typical U.S. players. They fit in well, and the blend of backgrounds can make us a stronger team.’’
The U.S. team flies from Miami to Kingston, Jamaica, on Thursday. The game is Friday night, and then the teams meet again in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 11. The United States has never beaten Jamaica on Jamaican soil.