'Iceman' Johannsson hoping to heat back up with USA's World Cup run looming - Sports Illustrated

'Iceman' Johannsson hoping to heat back up with USA's World Cup run looming

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U.S. forward Aron Johannsson (9) scored 26 goals in all competitions this season for AZ Alkmaar. (Arnulfo Franco/AP)

Aron Johannsson

STANFORD, Calif. -- Prospective strikers for the U.S. men’s national team are often discussed as if they were either side of a kitchen faucet. They are either “hot” or “cold,” parlance for a forward who is scoring goals and one who is not.

For much of the past year, 23-year-old Aron Johannsson was considered the “hot” striker in the U.S. pool. He netted 18 goals before Christmas for Dutch Eredivisie club AZ Alkmaar, and that cemented the perception that while other U.S. strikers struggled (namely former AZ standout Jozy Altidore) Johannsson was consistently scalding.

The reality is somewhere in between. Johannsson, the Icelandic-American who switched his international allegiance to the USA last summer, started the season hot for AZ but ended it closer to lukewarm. After suffering an ankle injury that caused him to miss two weeks, he returned and scored only once in a span of 12 games to end the season. He also missed two penalty kicks during that stretch. He still finished the year with 26 goals, a total any striker would take, but his late-season swoon created a small tinge of intrigue about what his role might be in Brazil.

“If I go to Brazil,” Johannsson said Wednesday, correcting a questioner who made the assumption that his spot among the final 23 team members was secure.

Despite his cautious approach, Johannsson will almost surely be one of the forwards U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann takes to the World Cup, but Johannsson himself cast a bit of doubt on that Tuesday when he disclosed that his injured ankle has remained a small bother.

“The last few weeks I’ve been hurting, but Sunday [in AZ’s 3-0 loss to Groningen] I played 90 minutes and I felt all right. It felt good,” he said.

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Because of that game, Johannsson was one of the final players to arrive at the U.S. camp at Stanford. He didn’t go through full training Monday or Tuesday.

“It’s been pretty easy days for me,” he said. “I’ve just been settling in. There is a lot of time difference [between California and the Netherlands], and so it has been hard to sleep at night. I’ve been waiting for the real work to start and think it is going to start today. Hopefully today and tomorrow I will train 100 percent with the team.”

What Johannsson can bring to the U.S. attack is well known. He is fast and skilled and probably the best American forward when it comes to running at defenders. His first goal for the U.S. was the game-winner in last October’s memorable 3-2 victory over Panama in the final game of World Cup qualifying.

“Most strikers can agree that the first goal is an important one, kinda takes the weight off your shoulders,” Johannsson said. “It is kind of hard to describe why it is that way, but it is nice to get it off my back and hopefully it was the first of many.”

As a younger player, Johannsson lined up wide in a 4-3-3 configuration, but he said Wednesday that he doubts that would be his role for the U.S.

“I want to play close to the box and score goals. I played when I was younger on the left and the right, but I think Jurgen sees me a striker,” he said.

He would also seem best suited next to another forward in a two-striker setup, someone like Altidore, who was a teammate of Johannsson’s two seasons ago at AZ. Altidore moved to Sunderland before last season and struggled, scoring just twice in 38 appearances. When asked about the coldest striker in the U.S. pool, Johannsson said: “Jozy is a very good striker, one of best ever to play for the U.S. I’ve been watching some of his games for Sunderland and maybe the whole year he got like five, six, seven opportunities to get a goal. It has not been the best service he’s been getting.”

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How Klinsmann might use Johannsson is difficult to discern, as the U.S. coach keeps his comments vague. Asked Wednesday about how Johannsson and another young striker, Terrence Boyd, might transfer their scoring prowess from their club teams to the U.S. squad, Klinsmann said: “They grow. I mean it is just a developmental path they go through, sooner or later you break through with the national team.

"For Aron and for Terrence, they have been with us for a year or two, and it is the same path. They build more confidence with their club teams, get goals for their club teams. They understand the different levels, where they play and the national teams and where they play and other leagues. It something they have to go through and be hungry in training and build the consistency and confidence to do it on an international stage. It is a normal journey they are on.”

Johannsson’s journey to the U.S. team is anything but normal. He was born in Alabama but moved to Iceland when he was just 3, and he had to choose between representing the country where he spent the bulk of his life or his native land.

“One of the good things about this team is anyone can come in. I’m from Iceland. Mix [Diskerud] is from Norway. There are players from Mexico and Germany. It is a strength of the team that no matter where you come from you can come into this team and fit in after a few days.”

When he spurned Iceland it caused a stir in that country of about 320,000 people. “They were not too happy about my decision,” he said. “But, hopefully, now they will be happy to see the first person from an Icelandic background in a World Cup. If I got to Brazil, I hope they will support me.”