After choosing the U.S., Aron Jóhannsson is ready to make his mark
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- In the wee hours of Saturday morning -- at 4 a.m. local time, to be exact -- a proud Icelandic man named Johann Gislason will take a seat in front of his laptop in Prague and try to contain his excitement. On the screen will be a livestream of the Costa Rica-U.S. World Cup qualifier, and his son, Icelandic-American forward Aron Jóhannsson, will have a very real chance of playing in (and perhaps even starting) his first qualifier in a U.S. jersey.
"I see all of his games," Gislason explained by phone from the Czech Republic, where he's on a work assignment. "This is something I was looking forward to since he was younger, but I always kept it to myself. I was very happy when he chose to play for the United States."
Jóhannsson was born in Mobile, Ala., where his parents were attending the University of South Alabama, and though the family moved back to Iceland when he was three years old, young Aron was a U.S. citizen. Now 22, Jóhannsson has gone on to become a deadly goal-scorer in European club soccer, first with Aarhus in Denmark and now with AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands. In his last 34 league games combined with both clubs he has scored 25 goals.
About a year ago, he says, he got a voicemail from U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. At first, Jóhannsson thought he was being catfished. "I called my agent to see if it was someone who was just f---ing with me," says Jóhannsson, a dead ringer for Kevin Bacon with blonde hair, with a laugh. "Then I finally decided to give him a call, and we talked. He said he was interested in bringing me in and wanted to hear my thoughts on the possibility of playing for the U.S."
This summer Jóhannsson announced he had decided to play for the U.S., giving rise to consternation in Iceland and optimism among U.S. fans. Last month FIFA approved his one-time switch -- he had played for Iceland in an official youth tournament -- and Jóhannsson made a strong debut as a sub in the U.S.'s 4-3 friendly win over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
With Jozy Altidore unlikely to start on Friday due to a hamstring issue, Jóhannsson is one candidate to replace him up top against the Costa Ricans, along with Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan.
"He's a different type of striker, a different type of player," Klinsmann said of Jóhannsson here on Thursday. "He takes people on, he's very light on his feet, and he has speed. But he always knows where the goal is, even if he's just roaming around with his back to the goal ... We knew that once we get him step-by-step here and give him some time to adjust, he will give us a different element. This is really nice to see. He's very focused. He knows what he wants. He wants to go to the World Cup."
When asked to describe his game, Jóhannsson is crystal clear. "I'm a striker," he says. "I love to come down and get the ball and sometimes go deep and be in the box scoring goals."
For all the money that U.S. Soccer has spent on its Under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., the best Bradenton-bred prospect of the last five years didn't come from the U.S. residency program. Jóhannsson first attended the IMG Academy in Bradenton for a week at age 14, then spent a year there at age 16 attending classes and working on improving as a soccer player.
"I think staying in the United States motivated him," says Jóhannsson's father, who studied finance at South Alabama while his mother, Helga Gudmondsdottir, studied communications. "That was the biggest step for him to be able to grow. He was there with other guys and without his parents. He decided to go and stay for one year. They wanted him to stay longer, but he decided to go to Iceland and start to play football professionally."
Jóhannsson started his pro career with Fjölnir in Iceland, where he was a hit. "My sister and father were moving to Aarhus, in Denmark," he says. "My good friend Victor Palsson, who played for New York, used to play in Aarhus, and he called the guys and told them I was moving. I was the top scorer of the first division in Iceland, so they decided to give me a tryout. I did well and they gave me a contract." Many goals and two-and-a-half years later, Jóhannsson moved to AZ after being pursued by sporting director Earnie Stewart, the former U.S. national team stalwart.
Despite showing promise, for many years Jóhannsson didn't think about playing for the U.S. someday. "My father said to me a few times, 'Maybe you should just go and play for the U.S.,'" he says. "But I thought the dream was so far away. But now I'm sitting here talking to you."
What should you know about Aron Jóhannsson? Well, for starters, his name is pronounced yo-han-sen, though he's so easygoing that he doesn't mind if you say it with a hard J instead. He's capable of showing off an amusing southern accent when he says "Mobile, Alabama." His favorite player while growing up in Iceland was David Beckham. ("The Premier League is the biggest thing in Iceland," he says by way of explaining.) And he's a big fan of the state of Florida, which he has visited on vacation most years of his life. He'd like to buy a house in the Sunshine State.
(Just don't be a dummy like me and ask an Icelandic male what his father's name is. Duh: Johann.)
This is Jóhannsson's first trip with the U.S. to Central America, and he hasn't seen anything quite like the reception the squad got when it arrived here on Tuesday. Some Costa Rican fans threw eggs at the U.S. team bus, hitting the window nearest to Jóhannsson. "My teammate in AZ is a goalkeeper from Costa Rica, and he told me when we come down the fans are going to be crazy because they're still mad from the snow game [in March against the U.S.]," he says. "So I kind of expected it a little bit, but I didn't really expect them to throw eggs at the bus."
Jóhannsson's decision to play for the U.S. over Iceland didn't come easily, he says. Relief is the word he uses most often to describe it. But now the decision is behind him, and he can focus on playing and helping the U.S. make it to Brazil next year.
"When I came here, the guys were really open, and I felt like I'm part of the group from day one," he says. "It's a really nice group of players. I think this will probably be the biggest game I've played so far and have the biggest meaning. Tomorrow night we could qualify for the World Cup if everything goes the right way, and I'm ready if the coach wants me."
Klinsmann wanted him badly, of course. And Friday night is another golden chance for Jóhannsson to show why.