Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Before Jurgen Klinsmann Found Aron Johannsson In Iceland, Johannsson Found His Game in Florida
World Cup

Before Jurgen Klinsmann Found Aron Johannsson In Iceland, Johannsson Found His Game in Florida The Iceman is hereth.

By Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This story first appeared in Howler Magazine's World Cup issue.

There is a picture of Aron Jóhannsson and his father, Jóhann, on Instagram. Aron looks about three years old, the age he was when his family moved from Mobile, Alabama, where Aron was born and where his parents went to college, to Reykjavík, Iceland, where he grew up. He and Jóhann are cheek to cheek, the same proud look on their faces, the same blond hair, the same blue eyes. The caption reads, “The man who has made me who i am today #papa.” 

I’m sitting across from that very photograph 20 years later. We’re at Abby’s, Aron’s favorite restaurant in downtown Alkmaar, a small Dutch city of windmills, canals, and the famous, four-centuries-old cheese market 40 miles north of Amsterdam. The 23-year-old star striker for the well-regarded local club, AZ Alkmaar, and now for the USMNT, has just finished his usual, a Caesar salad (chicken, no cheese). The club sandwich I’ve ordered on his recommendation is so unwieldy that I have to go at it with a knife and a forka surprisingly laborious processand while Aron and Jóhann wait for me to finish, they yuk it up and tell stories about Aron’s childhood and career in their lightly accented English. It’s a good laugh.

Then Aron leans across the table, his smile fades, and he says, “I’ll tell you what I learned about the media: you can’t joke too much.” At first, I think this is a joke, too, that whatever is to follow is the beginning of another deadpan delivery. But it’s not. This story is serious. It’s about a goal he scored for his previous club, AGF Aarhus of Denmark. It came in December 2012, in the 43rd minute of a snowy Danish Superliga match between AGF and AaB Fodbold. AGF midfielder Osama Akharraz gathered the orange ball about 30 yards from goal and laid it off for the waiting Jóhannsson. Aron took a touch and hit a right-footed Roberto Carlos-esque screamer into the upper-right corner of the AaB goal.

AGF went on to win 3–0, and in a post-match interview, Aron said all the right things: that the three points were what mattered and that he was particularly happy given how the squad was stretched by injuries. But he also told the reporters the goal “wasn’t luck,” and that going top corner from a distance was training-ground stuff.

“It was just a joke,” he says now. “I was laughing into the camera! But then there was a headline, ‘Aron: I Score This Every Day. Nothing Special.’”

“It was not good,” Jóhann says. “It was like he was cocky.”

“The best part was, three days later, we came to training and there was a camera on the field,” Aron continues. “I got a 30-meter pass and took it on the volley, and it hit the crossbar and in an amazing goaland the camera got it. So after three days they were like, ‘Well maybe he does do it every time in training!’”

And there we go again, laughing. It’s been like that all afternoon, a serious story followed by a laugh, repeat. Or vice versa: whenever Aron gets too loose, he checks himself and says something that feels rehearsed.

It’s hard to blame him. In the media, he’s been called things far worse than a cocky young goalscorer. When he chose to play for the U.S. instead of Iceland, Geir Thorsteinsson, president of Iceland’s football association, issued a statement arguing that Aron “has no link to soccer in the U.S. at all” and that “there is no logic behind Aron relinquishing his Icelandic soccer identity.” None of which is true, but all of which is enough to explain why he sometimes nibbles his cuticles and pauses to think before making statements that are impossible to misinterpretor sometimes refuses to answer my questions altogether.

“When the possibility first arose for Aron to play for the U.S., people in Iceland were laughing,” Alexander Freyr Einarsson, a journalist at Fótbolti.net, Iceland’s biggest soccer website, told me via e-mail. “They couldn’t imagine Aron would ever represent the U.S. team.” When Aron switched, they called him a traitor. Einarsson said many Iceland fans believe Aron chose the U.S., a country with a thousand times Iceland’s population, because of the prospect of lucrative endorsement deals.

Aron was 22. He was being accused of turning his back on an entire nation, the country he grew up in, the country of his ancestors, for money. No wonder he doesn’t want to talk about it.

Earlier that day, before Jóhann joined us at Abby’s for lunch, I met Aron at the Grand Café Van Gaal (named for the legendary and well-traveled coach Louis van Gaal), at AZ’s 17,000-seat AFAS Stadion. The café is more upscale restaurant than coffee house, with wood floors and black-and-white photographs on the walls. It has a deck where you can sip cappuccinos and look southwest, away from the city. The view is pastoral. In the distance is the town of Heiloo, and just below the deck are AZ’s training fields. This is where Jóhann comes to watch the team practice. It’s also where fans go if they want to meet a player, and as I spoke to Aron, we were occasionally interrupted by courteous young fathers and their quivering, terrified sons, autograph book in one hand, ballpoint in the other.

Aron signed his name and posed for pictures without a hint of frustration. He told me the fans in the Netherlands were polite and unobtrusive, unless, maybe, you played for Ajax. But he also saw something of himself in those boys.

He described himself as a “football nerd,” a trait he picked up from his dad when he was about the age his young fans are now. Jóhann was the first person to set a soccer ball down in front of Aron. And even today, when Aron isn’t playing the two often watch games together. (Jóhann still lives in Reykjavík, but he visits three to four times a year.) That’s what football nerds do. Aron says his ideal Saturday is catching the early English Premier League match, followed by the four o’clock kickoff, and then the late game. Whichever team Aron picks to win, Jóhann will pick the other, and they’ll spend the match arguing with each other about the merits of their particular choice.

But this friendly competition might be as adversarial as their relationship gets. Jóhann doesn’t seem like the kind of overbearing father so many pros have, the kind with a burned-out kid. That Aron is still so in love with the game is a testament to their bond. “He has his own goals now, which is very important,” Jóhann tells me at Abby’s. “I have mine, but I kept them to myself. I always did.”

When Aron was a kid, Jóhann worked in Iceland’s financial industry, and Aron’s mom, Helga, was a flight attendant. Helga often took Aron on trips to New York or to visit his aunt in Atlanta. When he was 15, on a trip to Florida, he went to train for a week at the elite multisports IMG Academy in Bradenton. She thought he’d have fun and maybe learn something.

Aron loved it.

And the coaches loved him. Tom Durkin, Aron’s coach at IMG, said he “recognized right away that he was a talent,” and persuaded Aron’s parents to enroll him at IMG full-time. But they didn’t, not immediately. In Iceland, compulsory education ends after the tenth grade, at which time kids enter an upper-secondary school: a kind of college-high school hybrid that in Iceland is a formative experience for young people. Aron didn’t want to miss that, but after eleventh grade he opted for IMG. “[Upper-secondary is] when most of the guys start drinking, smoking, partying every weekend,” Aron says. “So I kind of wanted to get rid of that and focus on football. And you know, at IMG it’s the same routine almost every day. You wake up, you go to school until one, and then after that you go train.”

“He had a very good temperament, but he wasn’t the hardest worker,” Durkin said. “I don’t think in Iceland he always had to work for everything [because] he was one of the better players. [At IMG] our credo is hard work.”

In other words, Aron learned he could no longer get by on natural talent alone. He competed alongside future pros, like Toronto FC’s Gale Agbossoumonde. Their team toured the country and played elite clubs from around the world. In Florida, they regularly competed against the U.S. national youth team, which was also in residency at IMG (although it had a different coaching staff).

Also, crucially, he had formative American experiences. He went to high school and took the SAT. Jóhann flew in from Iceland and they drove to a college combine in Atlanta. Several Division I schools courted him (they can’t remember which), and the plan was for Aron to return to IMG for a year before heading off to college. But the 2008 financial crisis hit, which devastated Iceland, and, despite Durkin’s best efforts to keep him, Aron returned home. Back in Reykjavík, he played semi-professionally for Fjölnir for nearly two years.

In 2010, Jóhann and one of Aron’s half sisters (he has three, plus a half brother) enrolled in graduate school in Denmark, and Aron moved with them. In Denmark, his friend and former New York Red Bull Victor Pálsson got Aron a trial with AGF Aarhus. After signing, Aron helped AGF earn promotion to the Danish Superliga. The following season, he went his first 14 games without a goal, but once he started scoring, he didn’t stop. He achieved the fastest hat trick in Superliga history, in 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In another match, he scored four goals. By the time he signed for AZ in January 2013, he’d notched 23 goals in 65 appearances for AGF. The dedication and professionalism he learned at IMGwhere he first seriously focused on soccerpaid off.

When you watch him play now, whether for AZ or the U.S. team, he seems to find the game naturally. He works hard, but he’s also fun to watch. With the ball at his feet he’s aggressivethe type of player you get out of your seat for. “He’s a proven goal scorer,” Earnie Stewart, AZ’s director of football and former U.S. national team star, told me by phone. When I asked who Aron reminded him of, Stewart mentioned none other than Ruud van Nistelrooy. “[Aron is] deadly in the 18-yard box,” Stewart said. “His movement off the ball is really good.”

In person, Aron seems taller than his listed six feet. He’s sturdier than he looks on TV, too, thanks to frequent gym sessions. (When we met at the stadium, it was his day off, but he’d just finished a workout.) Off the field, he’s quick-witted and eager to laugh. “He’s a great kid,” Stewart said. “He’s always got a smile on his face.”

The only subject Aron doesn’t seem at ease with is the one thing IMG and his parents couldn’t teach him: how to deal with all this attention. Taking pictures with kids is one thing; dealing with a nosy American reporter coming to see him in Alkmaar is another. And the turmoil that surrounded his decision to choose the U.S. over Iceland? Nobody could have prepared him for that.

In September 2012, Aron told The New York Times he hadn’t considered playing for the U.S., “but if Jürgen Klinsmann calls me and says he wants me to play for the United States, then it would be pretty hard to say no.”

That call almost didn’t come. The following month, the Icelandic national team selected Aron for a World Cup qualifier. If he’d played, he would have been tied to Iceland, but he withdrew due to injury. In January 2013, he left AGF for AZ, and at some point along the way, Jürgen Klinsmann started calling. On July 29, Aron announced his intention to play for the U.S.

In our time together, I asked Aron twice when exactly Klinsmann first called. Aron said he couldn’t remember, but that he doesn’t regret it, and that Klinsmann didn’t pressure him. He went on to say that it was a personal decision and he didn’t want to elaborate.

He did seek guidance from Earnie Stewart, which makes sense. Stewart was born in the Netherlands and, like Aron, is a dual national. “With his qualities and everything that he has in him, I thought that he’d be a good fit for the U.S. national team and get chances to play and be a part of the great tradition there is in the U.S. right now and the way we go about soccer,” Stewart said.

As a youth player, Aron had always identified with Iceland; he even played for Iceland’s U-21 team at the 2013 European Championship. But there doesn’t appear to be any hard feelings on Jóhann’s or his son’s side. Aron and Jóhann rooted for Iceland as it nearly qualified for its first ever World Cup. “I was really excited,” Aron told me at the stadium, recalling Iceland’s qualification playoff. The U.S. played Scotland on the same day Iceland hosted Croatia in the first leg. “They told me immediately after the game it was 0–0, and I was like, ‘Wow, I hope they make it,’” Aron said. “I hoped so much that they would make it! I knew that if they were going to make it [the U.S.] would be in the same group, and that would have just been amazing: to beat Iceland in the World Cup!” He laughed to himself and shook his head.

“Kolbeinn Sigthórsson, our main striker, got injured in the first game and was unavailable in the second leg away,” Einarsson recalled. “We could absolutely have used Aron in that game.”

By then Aron had already made his U.S. debut, against Bosnia and Herzegovina, and had scored his first goalone of the more dramatic goals in recent internationalsagainst Panama in the U.S. team’s final World Cup qualifier.

Going into the Panama game, Klinsmann’s men were already through to Brazil, but Panamaalong with Mexicowas on the bubble.

“It was the strangest feeling I’ve had in my whole life,” Aron said of the goal. Panama was up 2-1 into the 90th minute; only stoppage time separated the country known more for Mariano Rivera than for Blas Pérez from its first trip to the World Cup. Graham Zusi’s tying goal in the 92nd minute meant Panama would now have to qualify through a playoff with New Zealand. One minute later, Terrence Boyd, Team USA’s German American striker, found Aron unmarked, just outside the 18. The Panamanian defenders didn’t close him down, and Aron hit a bouncing shot into the bottom-left corner of the goal. The crowd in Panama went silent. The Central Americans would not be going to the World Cup; Mexico, eventually, would.

“Of course it was my first goal, and I wanted to just rip my jersey and celebrate and scream, but the atmosphere in the stadium was just...” Aron paused. He looked at me with the same pained expression he’d had on the field in Panama after his shot went in. “And, so when I scored, I really couldn’t... I was... It’s hard to describe, but I couldn’t really celebrate because all the people, all the other players, they were crying and... It was mixed emotions, you could say.”

Before leaving Abby’s, we have coffee (though Aron abstains) and chat briefly about Germany, where I live. Years ago, Jóhann studied German in Frankfurt, and we discuss the challenges of learning new languages. Both Jóhann and Aron are multilingual, and Aron plans to give his first postmatch interview in Dutch sometime soon.

Aron asks why so many Americans live in Germany. I mention the U.S. military bases. Without them, there wouldn’t be so many German American internationals. Then the conversation turns to Julian Green. Green, an 18-year-old German American who plays for Bayern Munich, recently agreed to train with the Americans as they prepared to play Ukraine but had yet to formally declare for the U.S. (He would the following month.)

“I think if Jürgen were to say, ‘You get a spot on the World Cup,’ he would choose us,” Aron says.

“Is that what he said to you?” I ask.

“No! He said I had to work as hard as everybody else. But if he says it to someone, maybe it brings them over.”

“Maybe you should call him up.”

“Jürgen or Julian?”

“Julian,” I say.

Aron considers this for a moment, grins. “What position does he play?”

I say Green is a forward, “Like you.”

“Well then I don’t want that!” Aron says, and we all laugh. Then he leans over my digital recorder and says, slowly, “It was a joke.”

For more tournament coverage from Howler, check out their exhaustive timeline of the World Cup history.

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