As the United States national team prepares to resume World Cup qualifying after a successful three games in June in which it surged into first place in its regional qualifying group and then won the Gold Cup, the team received a boost with the addition of AZ striker Aron Johannsson.
Johannsson, 22, has been the subject of an international tug-of-war between the United States and Iceland but earlier this month the dual citizen ended the yearlong saga by announcing he would play for the United States team. Because Johannsson had played in official games with Iceland’s under-21 team, he was required to file a one-time change of association application with FIFA.
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann pursued Johannsson since late last year when the young forward began to emerge as one of the most productive scorers in the Danish Superliga at Aarhus.
“I was just an Icelandic kid playing in Denmark, no big deal,” Johannsson said about his initial conversation with Klinsmann. “To get a call from a legend and the coach of the U.S. team, it was really special. He showed me interest for more than a year. He kept calling me and telling me that he really wanted to see me play for the United States. The more I thought about it, it was a huge opportunity.”
After his initial call from Klinsmann, the decision of which national team to represent weighed heavily on Johannsson. In January, he was invited to participate in the United States team’s annual January camp, but a hernia operation prevented him from attending.
At the time Johannsson was also completing his transfer from Aarhus to AZ in the Netherlands’ Eredivisie. During that time AZ’s top striker was the United States international Jozy Altidore, and Johannsson was being looked at as a potential replacement for Altidore who was widely expected to be transferred.
Johannsson began to regain his health late in the second half of the Eredivisie season, and proved his value by scoring three goals in five games. Altidore immediately saw Johannsson’s ability and tried to persuade him to play with the United States team.
“We spoke about the national team from time to time,” Altidore said. “I always encouraged him to play for the United States. He’s a mix between a striker and a No. 10 in my opinion. He can score, but can also set up teammates and has good technique. We got along great all the time. He’s such a smart player and I’m so happy he chose the U.S. I think he’s going to be a huge asset going forward.”
When Johannsson announced his decision to play for the United States earlier this month, the reaction was met with both criticism and understanding in Iceland. One of the sharpest critics was Geir Thorsteinsson, the president of Iceland’s federation, who suggested that Johannsson’s interest in playing for the United States was purely financial. He even petitioned FIFA to change its rules to prevent the switch.
“He has his opinion and I have mine,” Johannsson said of Thorsteinsson’s remarks. “But it’s his opinion and I respect that. With everyone I’ve spoken to, a lot of them wanted me to play for Iceland but they understand it was not their choice and it was my choice. They respected that.”
Leaving for the United States is high risk, high reward. As the United States team has continued to improve, it has become an increasingly difficult team for a player to make, but it also offers the opportunity to play in a World Cup every four years. Iceland, on the other hand, has never qualified.
“I thought about it for a long, long time and in the end I thought it was the best decision for me and my family,” Johannsson said. “My dad was especially excited for me. When I was younger he wanted me to play at the highest level possible. This made him happy.”
Johannsson made his senior international debut for the United States when he was inserted in the 63rd minute of the game against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Johannsson showed his potential with a lively start, combining well with his teammates and consistently looking dangerous in the 4-3 win.
Johannsson’s longtime Icelandic agent Magnus Agnar Magnusson has watched his client publicly deal with the decision for the past year but is happy with the outcome. “I spoke to Aron after the game against Bosnia; he was 100 percent sure that he made the right decision,” Magnusson said.
Johannson said: “I was just proud to get a jersey from such a big country. I didn’t realize how big an occasion it was for me. The United States is a country of 300 million people and is ranked inside the top 20. When Klinsmann called me I started to follow their games. I thought they played well, and after I played with them I realized this was a good team with good players.”
Before and after the Bosnia game Klinsmann was quick to admit that he believed Johannsson was going to be a major addition to the United States team. When the roster for the game was announced, Klinsmann told U.S Soccer’s Web site that Johannsson “is one of the very promising strikers in European football.”
After the game, Klinsmann added: “I think everyone saw why we were after Aron and trying to convince him. It’s huge for us.”
It is easy to see why Klinsmann has been such a vocal supporter of Johannsson. In his last 33 league games combined for Aarhus and AZ, he has scored 25 goals. He has scored in five of the first six games for AZ this season in all competitions.
After his exceptional start to the season with AZ and his solid performance against Bosnia, Johannsson is likely to be part of the United States team for the coming World Cup qualifiers in September at Costa Rica and against Mexico. He is also the latest dual national to join the team after spending his formative years outside the United States.
Johannsson was born in Mobile, Ala., while his Icelandic parents were studying at the University of South Alabama. He returned with his family to Iceland when he was 3 years old, and developed his game there.
Despite growing up in Iceland, he maintained ties to the United States. His family frequently vacationed in Florida and he would also visit his aunt in Atlanta. His most significant connection to the United States growing up came when he played for a year at Florida’s IMG Academy [soccer program]. He said his time there played a part in his decision to play for the United States.
“I lived there for one year and it was a new experience to live in the United States,” Johannsson said. “It was one of the best years of my life. I got to know the culture and meet American people.”
Now that he has the opportunity to be a part of the United States team in the years ahead, Johannsson is eager to open a new chapter and further the bond he has with the country of his birth.
“I’m going to love it even more because I’ve always said to my family and my friends that I love America and I’ve always wanted to move to Florida,” Johannsson said. “I did that when I moved to IMG. I’m hoping that when I end my career I can at least have a house somewhere in America I can go to.”
Johannsson and AZ return to action Thursday against the Greek club Atromitos in the second leg of its Europa League qualifying playoff. AZ has a 3-1 lead from the first leg.