US striker Aron Johannsson may play a part in USA’s game against Belgium on Tuesday afternoon, whether it’s from the bench or as a surprise starter. But how did the blonde-hair Icelandic striker find his way into this US World Cup side? Let’s review.
At the exact minute that Jozy Altidore pulled his hamstring against Ghana, the ever-growing support of the United States Men’s National Team held its collective breath. When it was clear that the 24-year-old striker, who has carried the hopes of a nation since his 2007 debut, was unable to continue, fans and pundits alike looked to the available replacements. Landon Donovan’s controversial exclusion mean there was no natural substitute for a player of Altidore’s experience and talent, so the gaze was immediately set on the only two natural forwards left on the roster — San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski, an MLS veteran at 31 with little international experience, and AZ Alkmaar’s Aron Johannsson.
Johannsson’s name has been a part of the USMNT conversation ever since it was clear that he might choose the United States, the nation of his birth, over his home since age three, Iceland. But even now, as many are wondering whether Altidore will get playing time against Belgium, USMNT fans don’t truly appreciate the talent that they have with Johannsson. But Iceland and its fans surely realize it, and abhor him for his decision. At just 22 years old, Aron Johannsson was treated as a traitor to the country of his upbringing when he decided to ply his trade for the country of his birth, the country most likely to bring him the glory he so passionately wants. But many on both sides don’t truly know Aron Johannsson’s story.
Aron Johannsson was born in what seems the most unlikely of places for a future European soccer star — Mobile, Alabama. His parents were attending graduate school there until Aron was three, when they moved the family back to their home of Iceland. Aron’s life was pretty normal from that point on, until a trip back to the USA to visit an aunt in Atlanta led to a visit with an elite sports academy in Florida called IMG. He immediately stood out to the soccer coaches at IMG, and even though he enjoyed his time there, he chose to return to Iceland to finish grade school. Crucial to Aron’s American experience, though, was his return to IMG a couple years later. Since he was high school age at the time, Aron attended an American high school and went through the typical track of a college-bound student athlete. IMG helped develop him as a player, and he prepared to enter the American college system (he was recruited by a number of top Division I soccer schools) after some time at IMG. But various factors in Iceland led to Aron’s return to the country he considered his home, and he continued his development at the semi-professional Reykjavik club Fjolnir.
After a couple years at Fjolnir, Aron followed his father and half-sister to Denmark, where he tried out for and subsequently joined AGF Aarhus. His time in Denmark didn’t get off to a flying start, but by the time his tenure there was finished, he had scored 23 goals in 65 appearances for the club. He even broke the record for fastest hat trick in the Danish Superliga’s history: three minutes and fifty seconds. But it was his next, and current, club that Aron Johannsson’s name truly started to be uttered in the same sentences as the US national team and the 2014 World Cup. He joined AZ Alkmaar in 2013, incidentally the same club that Jozy Altidore ran riot for in the Eredevisie from 2011-2013.
Johannsson scored 20 goals in 39 appearances for the Dutch club, a scoring rate that isn’t to be sniffed at, even in the Eredivisie. It’s no coincidence that Johannsson announced his decision to play for the USMNT in July 2013, as his few months at AZ had already been wildly successful. It’s easy to compare Johannsson with Altidore, and it may even ease some fans’ minds to consider that the two strikers were successful with the same club. But the players’ styles couldn’t be more different; while Altidore has always been known for his physical and traditional no. 9 way of playing, Johannsson has a much more European edge to his game that focuses on technique, control, and finesse.
Fans of the United States national team love their heroes, and Jozy Altidore has popped up in so many crucial moments that it’s hard to remember that he is still quite young. But there’s no reason to be bummed about the inevitable inclusion of Aron Johannsson into Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad. He might not have the international experience or brute strength of a player like Altidore, but Klinsmann’s no fool. He picked Johannsson for a reason. We have a real European-bred talent on our hands, and at some point, that talent is going to come good in a big way.
There will be a time when, at the exact same time, we will be thanking the same soccer gods that Icelanders have been cursing since 2013.