BRIAN SCIARETTA - Thursday, September 5, 2013
As the United States begins training in Costa Rica ahead of Friday's World Cup qualifier, Aron Johannsson is looking to continue the momentum from his impressive debut against Bosnia.
Johannsson, 22, made headlines in early August when he announced that he would file his one-time change of association application with FIFA to leave the Icelandic setup to play for the United States national team. U.S head coach Jurgen Klinsmann acted quickly and called up the AZ Alkmaar forward for the friendly against Bosnia.
It was initially considered unlikely that Johannsson was going to play in that game since his FIFA paperwork was still pending but he surprisingly became eligible the day before the game when his application was approved.
With the score tied at 2-2, Klinsmann subbed Johannsson into the game for his first U.S appearance. While Jozy Altidore's hat-trick en route to a 4-3 win was the top story from the game, Johannsson was very impressive creating several scoring chances and combining well with his new teammates.
It was a memorable few days for Johannsson with the U.S team in Sarajevo as he previously only knew Altidore from earlier this year when both were teammates at AZ Almkaar. He roomed with Brad Evans on the trip and quickly became integrated.
"It was how I thought it would be," Johannsson recalled to YA. "It was a little bit different because I was used to playing for Iceland's U-21s where I would know everyone and see some my best friends from youth. It was kind of different to come in and play with the US team where I only knew Jozy. I can't say I was nervous. I was more excited. I was waiting the whole game for Jurgen to tell me I was coming in. I was excited the whole time."
Johannsson's performance against Bosnia was also satisfying for Klinsmann who has been trying to recruit Johannsson to the U.S team since last year. With his debut now over, the next goal will be to continue to integrate Johannsson into the team's core.
"I think he already showed in that half an hour that he has a lot of special tools in his game," Klinsmann explained. "Therefore we want to push that further with him. We want to make him a real part of this roster, this group, make him feel comfortable and make him grow with the U.S. team."
Klinsmann added: "I spoke to [former U.S international and AZ Alkmaar technical director] Earnie Stewart a couple of times about him, and we've always talked and corresponded that it was his dream to play for the United States one day. He's a player that can surprise a lot of opponents. He's unpredictable, he's confident, and he's seeing the game really well ahead so he slips where the ball will go."
In recent years, both Jurgen Klinsmann and his predecessor, Bob Bradley, introduced a growing number of dual-national players into the U.S team. Fabian Johnson, Mix Diskerud, Jermaine Jones, and John Anthony Brooks are all players on the current team who have lived most of their lives in another country.
Johannsson's background is unique in that regard because neither of his parents are American. Instead, he was born in Mobile, Alabama when his Icelandic parents were studying at the University of South Alabama. He moved back to Iceland when he was just three.
His connections to the United States are not distant however. He frequently visited the United States on vacation and to visit his aunt in Atlanta. As he grew impressed with the American culture, he spent a year training at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida when he was 17. It was a time which Johannsson describes as "one of the best times of my life."
Johannsson credits his time at IMG as having "some influence" on his decision to play for the United States but it gave him the confidence that he would be able to integrate into the U.S team. During that year he lived with four other players and was surprised at how "open" the culture was in the United States.
His coach at IMG was Tom Durkin who has worked with many top American players who have come through the program and recalls at how well Johnansson adjusted both on and off the field.
"He played a number of different positions for us," Durkin said of Johannsson. "He's just a natural goal scorer. I'm not surprised by his success. He's sort of surprise to some but he came to us with natural talent. He's a great kid. I can see on Facebook so many of the IMG players from his time are so excited for him."
Johannsson first moved into the spotlight last year when he began a torrid scoring streak in the Danish Superliga with AGF Aarhus. In January he moved to AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie but a hernia surgery limited his time. When the club sold Altidore after the season, Johannsson became AZ's first choice at forward.
To start the season, Johannsson has five goals in seven games across all competitions but he recognizes that there is urgency within the club to improve and regain its status as one of the top teams in Dutch soccer. Last year the club won the Dutch Cup to qualify for Europa League but was also mired in a relegation battle for most of the season.
This season AZ has already qualified for the Europa League group stages but the test will come in the Eredivisie which it won in 2009. As one of the team's top offensive threats, Johannsson has placed a lot of responsibility on his shoulders.
"I have the highest expectations of myself," Johannsson said bluntly. "I have scored five goals but I still feel that I could have done better. I put the most pressure on myself. But I set goal for the team, not myself. I want to be part of the team that plays in the Europa League this season and finishes better than we did last year. I want to help the team finish in the top five this season. If I score five goals this season and we finish number one, it's a perfect season. But if I score 30 goals this year and we get relegated, it's a bad season. Of course I'm a striker and I should score but it's about the team. Teams win games, not individuals. Our goal is to be better in the league for sure. We finished 10th last year. We want to be in the top five this year."
For now, Johannsson is focused on the U.S national team this international break. Following the Costa Rica game, the team will return home to Columbus, Ohio for its most high profile game of the year when it will host Mexico.
That game will be Johannsson's first time representing the United States in front of the American crowd. Despite him growing up in Iceland, he is well aware of the heated rivalry between the two nations in soccer.
"I remember when I was at IMG and the United States and Mexico were playing against each other in Mexico," Johannsson said. "There were maybe 100 guys watching in the cafeteria on television. I remember there was almost a fight between the USA guys and the Mexican guys. The rivalry was so big. The biggest game is the USA vs. Mexico."