FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Mix Diskerud is comfortable at a crossroads. So comfortable, in fact, that he recently claimed in a public message board post that he used a coin flip to decide in 2008 whether to sign a professional contract in Norway or attend college in the United States.
Boston College and the University of San Diego, his two primary suitors, lost. Stabæk Fotball, a club in suburban Oslo now (but not then) coached by former U.S. national team manager Bob Bradley, won. Diskerud, 24, is in his seventh year as a pro.
“There have been many luxurious possibilities,” Diskerud said of a life that has spanned two continents. The Oslo-born son of a Norwegian father and an American mother, Diskerud spent his winters with family and friends in Arizona. He’d go to Phoenix Suns games with his grandfather and likes to joke that he’s a “mix” of two cultures. His parents tried to arrange a semester of school in each country when he was a child — the Norwegians balked — and he’s represented both as a soccer player.
Diskerud played for Norway’s U-18s and U-19s and, after being spotted by former MLS and U.S. U-20 coach Thomas Rongen at a 2008 youth tournament in Mexico, he swapped the rød, hvit og blått for the red, white and blue. In 2013, after he’d appeared only once for Jurgen Klinsmann’s senior squad, Diskerud was invited to return to the Norwegian national team.
“I had meetings with the Norwegian federation," Diskerud told SI.com. "We had talks and they wanted me in, but when Jurgen gave me a call before the Gold Cup, I knew then what I wanted to do and I have no regrets whatsoever after that. If I turned down something it was something good, or if I said ‘Yes’ to something, it was something good. There were not a lot of negative choices but definitely tough decisions.”
The game’s top playmakers can slow their surroundings. They create order from chaos. They don’t get flustered as permutations proliferate. Sometimes they’re decisive and sometimes they change their mind. But they always strive to appear, as Diskerud said, “laid back and chill.”
And so Diskerud finds himself excited and at peace as he approaches the next turning point in his career. He’s a Norwegian-American on the cusp. He parlayed his contributions to the 2013 Gold Cup title to a regular spot in Klinsmann’s rotation last fall. He turned heads with a gorgeous assist to Landon Donovan in last September’s World Cup qualification-clinching win over Mexico and then managed to earn one of the 23 coveted spots on the flight to Brazil. But he was one of only two U.S. field players who failed to get off the bench at the World Cup. Despite failing to reach soccer’s summit after coming so close, Diskerud returned to Norway and his current club, Rosenborg BK, with the sort of positivity and determination Klinsmann prizes.
“For me, it helped a lot," Diskerud said. "The experience in the World Cup, being a part of it, whether you play a game or not, it was being a part of the whole process. Pre World Cup, every training matters, and when I left from Brazil back to Norway, there was a fire inside me knowing I wanted to be back in Russia [for the 2018 World Cup] and be a part of this. It was the coolest feeling ever walking around for four weeks in that bubble, smiling and having fun.”
Now, Klinsmann is giving Diskerud the opportunity to establish himself as a starter, but with conditions. And after rejecting an overture from the Columbus Crew in August, despite an offer that sources said might triple his RBK wages (it was his second flirtation with MLS following talks with the Portland Timbers in 2012), Diskerud faces free agency this winter. It’s a lot to take in, but he’s ready for both.
For country, there’s little doubt about Diskerud’s savvy on the ball. He has the sort of vision, composure and creativity that can’t be taught. To start in Klinsmann’s midfield, however, one must be a complete player.
“Following the World Cup, our message to him was to become more aggressive, to take things more in his own hands,” Klinsmann said at Florida Atlantic University, where the U.S. will meet Honduras on Tuesday night. “He’s got those messages. We want to see him more aggressive, more one-against-one challenges, become physical, become stronger.”
Diskerud, listed at a lean 6 feet, 150 pounds, hit the weight room hard following the World Cup and said he’s added nearly nine pounds of muscle.
“It’s almost more mental, I would say, but it helps having a couple more pounds of muscle when you go into those challenges," he said. "But a lot of it is mental in how you perceive the game and how you want to play. For me, the ‘not fun stuff’ is starting to become fun stuff. After the World Cup, I had talks with Jurgen and he told me, and the press, that I needed to be more physical and get into those battles more … I’m trying to make it part of my game now. I see it as a challenge, and I like challenges.”
Diskerud started the recent friendlies against the Czech Republic and Ecuador. Both games featured younger, more attack-oriented midfields than the one Klinsmann deployed in Brazil. He wants to see what young, skillful and confident players can do.
“The biggest learning curve they can go through is being on the field and getting minutes,” Klinsmann said. “This is the period now to do it.”
Diskerud has been effective. He set up Alejandro Bedoya’s game-winner in Prague with just the sort of play Klinsmann is seeking. Diskerud stripped the ball from a Czech defender, drove in on goal and forced the goalkeeper into a save that sent the ball to Bedoya’s feet. Against Ecuador on Friday, Diskerud scored the Americans’ only goal in a 1-1 draw. It was his fourth for the U.S.
“I’ve been told I’m a player that can control the tempo of the game," he said. "I’ve been trying to do that the past few games. The chemistry with Ale [Bedoya] and Joe Corona is definitely there. We like to keep the ball. I have great fun playing with them.”
Tuesday may present a different sort of test. Can Diskerud find his comfort zone alongside the robust likes of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones? Can he combine with Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore? If he doesn’t get the chance against Honduras, it surely will come soon. And he’ll have role models to watch in the meantime.
Diskerud typically opts for fun. His Instagram account features shots of him modeling new suits or showing off the flowing hairstyle that’s become the subject of gifs and jokes in the U.S. He said he’s been offered the opportunity to model in Norway but hasn’t had the time. But if he did, he'd consider it.
“All things that are fun, I would do,” he said.
It’s the U.S. national team that has helped him build a permanent bridge between cultures. It’s helped him kindle his internal fire.
“In Norway, we call it the ‘American mentality’,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re underdogs. Every time you go out on the field you think you can win. People admire that. I’ve learned to have it. I didn’t really know what it was before I became a part of the U.S. team … When you step on the field you see every single tackle. Everything is determination and will.”
If he can make that a permanent part of his game, he’ll be a national team spectator far less frequently. As for his club career, he’s not tipping his hand. MLS expansion team New York City FC will sit atop the allocation order come December and will have first crack at U.S. internationals signing with MLS. He could remain at RBK, which is third in Norway’s Eliteserien and in position to qualify for the 2015-16 UEFA Europa League. Or he could try his luck in one of Europe’s top circuits.
“I’m just focusing on Rosenborg and the national team here and I have no idea what’s going to happen," Diskerud said, without a hint of concern in his voice. "I truly don’t … I could do a lot of things. I really don’t know. I just want to wait and see. I’m comfortable and I’m sure I’ll make the right choice and we’ll see what happens.”