Christian Pulisic, Fabian Johnson must play together on the left for U.S.
Since debuting for the United States men's national team in a friendly against France on Nov. 11, 2011, Fabian Johnson has been one of the squad's most dynamic attacking forces. He possesses a combination of touch, vision and tactical acumen that's in rather short supply for the Americans.
The 28-year-old from Munich doesn't score frequently -- just two goals in 51 caps -- but he's a constant threat to make an incisive pass when he's on the ball and skillfully uses his understanding of the game to make smart runs off it. Johnson won't ever be the focal point of the U.S. attack, but he's the type of wide player who thrives in a modern system built on overlapping runs, dynamic movement and free-flowing soccer.
Enter Christian Pulisic. A teenager with technical ability and awareness that's far beyond his years, he's quickly shown that he belongs and deserves significant minutes for Jurgen Klinsmann's team. With three goals and two assists in just 267 minutes (admittedly against some less-than-top-notch competition), it's clear that Pulisic can produce at the international level.
To get the best out of Pulisic, he should line up ahead of Johnson on the left side of the field. Both players like to attack, and Pulisic, an excellent passer and crosser, has looked most dangerous when running downhill and at the opposing defense. Pairing them would put similar players at full-back and midfield on the left side, but that's not necessarily a problem. In fact, it could be beneficial.
"You have two really attacking players," former U.S. full-back Frankie Hejduk said when asked about the duo. "They want to get forward. They want to create offensively. It's a good problem to have."
How the on-field relationship between the two develops will be a key to the success of the U.S. going forward. They could become a dynamic attacking force, two creative visionaries working off each other to flummox opposing back lines, a duo that defends in tandem and shuts down opponent attacks. But it is also possible that Johnson's attacking prowess will get lost due to the tendencies of his more advanced teammate and that the two will crowd each other, unsure of their roles and unable to adjust.
For Hejduk, a player known for charging forward from the back line and delivering teasing crosses, it's incumbent on the coaching staff to define each player's job. "The relationship between the full-back and wide midfielder is probably their most important one on the field," he said. "I've played with guys I was in tune, with and I've played guys who I wasn't in tune with. The guys who I wasn't in tune with, the coach didn't make it really clear what our roles were."
Hejduk cited the 2002 World Cup as one of his better pairings. Bruce Arena and his staff worked with Hejduk, who was playing left full-back for the first time in his career, and newcomer DaMarcus Beasley. "[When I went into camp], I wasn't thinking about defense," he said. "My initial thought was, 'Let's go forward.' My second intuition was, 'Let me see if I can two-footed tackle someone and get back on defense.' The coaches made it very clear to us what we were doing. My role in 2002 was very, very simple: get the ball to DaMarcus Beasley as quick as possible and then defend." The Americans made a run to the quarterfinal.
While Johnson will be tasked with getting forward more than Hejduk, his primary responsibility will be on the defensive end. Former U.S. full-back Steve Cherundolo believes the current American left side will be fine defending, despite the attacking mindset. "They complement each other very well as a duo that is very offensive, but I think they are fit enough, fast enough and smart enough to figure it out defensively," he said.
So far, that's been true. Johnson might rather play upfield, but he's embracing his full-back responsibilities and growing into a stronger one-on-one defender. Pulisic, schooled in Dortmund's high-pressing style, shifts mentally from attack to defense quicker than almost anyone else on the U.S. team. When he or one of his teammates loses the ball in his area, Pulisic instantaneously transitions into "get it back" mode. Hejduk sees some of Beasley, who "never let up," in Pulisic's determination to regain possession.
For two players who want to attack, neither Pulisic nor Johnson seems to have too many issues on the defensive side of the ball, and their limited minutes together show that they might be better than the sum of their parts. It's a partnership that can grow, although they'll need to learn on the fly, because "at the national team level you don't have a lot of time together training to get relations like that sorted out," Cherundolo said. "A lot of that happens on game days." In other words, the more reps, the better. Cherundolo had Landon Donovan playing ahead of him for a number of years, and "eventually, you get to know each other's strengths and weaknesses, and then it becomes really easy," he said.
This is the goal for the new American left side duo, and early returns have been mixed. Johnson and Pulisic have started only one game together, the most recent World Cup qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago. But as we've seen in earlier stints, the younger player needs space to operate, and his tendency to charge down the flank before crossing might hinder Johnson's ability to overlap and get into wide spaces from his left full-back position.
Consider the two heat maps above. The top one shows Johnson's positioning when he played left back during Copa America matches against Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay. The second depicts Johnson's positioning against Trinidad and Tobago. There is some evidence that having Pulisic on the field forces Johnson further into the middle in the attacking half of the field. Passing charts show a similar effect, with many of Johnson's passes against Trinidad and Tobago going to Pulisic or Jozy Altidore on the left flank as opposed to a more spread-out map in the three Copa America games.
Of course, one game is an extremely small sample size. With more time, Johnson and Pulisic will better learn each other's strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. At least that's what the coaching staff should be hoping for and helping to facilitate, because the pair could emerge as a spectacular unit for the national team. The pairing is in its very early days, but since Johnson and Pulisic could be manning the left side of the U.S. formation for the foreseeable future, there's no more important dynamic to watch.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.