Aron-johannsson Courtesy of AGF
The Striker

Aron Johannsson: Could He Be America's Next No.9?

The 22-year-old striker was born in Mobile, Alabama; raised in Reykjavik, Iceland; and is now scoring goals for fun in Aarhus, Denmark. We explore the possibilities of this U.S.-eligible forward.

BY Will Parchman Posted
January 10, 2013
9:40 AM
[Editor's note: On July 29, 2013, Aron Johannsson officially announced his intention to play for the United States national team. Born in Alabama but raised in Iceland, Johannsson was struggling to choose between the two countries. But now he has. Given this announcement, we thought that Will Parchman's "The Striker" column might be worth a read, or a re-read. You may also want to glance at Johannsson's ASN 100 profile]

Joe-Max Moore is on the move. His floppy, mid-1990s blue-and-black Saarbrucken kit billows as he cleaves through Nuremberg defenders.

A gravelly German voice lays over this Internet video like an anvil on a silk scarf. The voice booms but begins to tremble as the grainy video struggles to focus. Moore skips through another defender and thunders into the box. The steady-cam shakes and the 23-year-old Moore has passed off to a teammate before spinning into clean space just outside the top of the six-yard box.

The ball comes back and Moore traps it with aplomb. The video's audio crackles like fire. Moore takes a touch with his left, shifts to his right to elude a charging defender, and thumps a no-doubter into the left corner. The keeper doesn't even move. The grainy camera is now shaking uncontrollably as the Ludwigsparkstadion explodes into color and light. In between its spasms of joy, the camera catches Moore sprinting down the touchline, trailing teammates, a finger held aloft before the video cuts out.

Imagine. Because it's all we can do.

There are times when I feel for the U.S. forwards reared in the 1990s. There is the obvious bonus now that soccer nerds like me (and probably you) can comb through years-back archives on YouTube and burn hours at a time poring over one highlight after another. But the real detriment comes in the shockwaves and aftershocks soccer highlight videos create among the population at large.

For obvious reasons, YouTube is friendlier to strikers than any other position. Fat Ronaldo's Top 10 goal montage has 2.1 million views. There are two videos recounting each of Messi's 91 goals in 2012 that have, cumulatively, gotten more than three million views. In four weeks.

And, if you're so inclined, you can watch Aron Johannsson score the fastest hat trick in Danish history.

Johannsson's is a 21st century case for a YouTube world, so perhaps that's why this all makes so much sense. He is a 22-year old striker born in Alabama to Icelandic parents who had moved to the University of South Alabama to study abroad. This is a striker for the new millennium.

At the age of three, Johannsson's parents moved the family from Mobile, Ala., back to Reykjavik, the ancestral family home. And now he's banging in goals with alarming regularity for AGF Aarhus in the Danish Superliga (he has an astonishing 14 goals in 18 games this season, tied for the league lead though the winter break). He's still undecided on whether he'll pull on the Iceland or U.S. shirt, which makes the next several months the eternal crossroads for his national career. Call-ups to both national teams have already been scuttled by injury. Iceland's next qualifier is in March, which is incidentally when the Danish Superliga reconvenes from its winter hiatus. We'll probably know by then.

Until then we can pick over Johannsson's work via YouTube, and attempt to glean some things about his tendencies.

In a breathtaking span of three minutes and 50 seconds last August, Johannsson scored three times against Horsens. He actually scored all four of Aarhus' goals that day in a 4-1 win, but it was these back-to-back-to-back tallies during a span from the 32nd to the 36th minutes that held the world's attention. You can see them below.

We'll start with the positives. Johannsson is a fluid footballer with a true No. 9's touch. And he has comfortable use of his left, which is laid bare on his first goal. He takes the cross down, tamps down the pass, and toe-pokes into the right corner. Not easy in traffic, but it's his pre-shot instinct here that's worth a second look. Johannsson undercuts his defender, whips to his outside, then then takes a touch before stamping the shot home. The defender probably didn't even think he was in trouble before the ball whizzed by him.

We've talked briefly about Clint Mathis in this space, about his propensity to do most of the heavy lifting before he took the shot. This didn't just prevent Mathis' circuit from shorting in the box; it meant he had the path of least resistance at his feet by the time he looked up to score. It's clear Johannsson has either been taught this property or has an innate gift for it. With the really good ones, it's usually the latter. In the majority of Johannsson's goals, he's done the difficult work by the time he loosens his arrow—found the high ground, steadied his feet, beat his enemy to the battleground, and notched his implement. All that's left is to let it sing. And more often than not he finds his marker.

There's a saying in basketball that defense travels. Your offense will desert you in difficult circumstances, but heavily drilled, tightly-wound defense is imbedded in the fabric. It's the same way with practiced strikers; graft travels. There are some—men like Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo, Messi, Falcao—who make impossible shots look routine several times a year. For the other 99 percent, this incandescent ability to wow (Johannsson has it as we'll see later, but in reserve) will leave you at inopportune times. You'll reach for it but it won't be there.

You'll see strikers waste half their careers constantly looking for the sublime when the utilitarian option is ripe on the tree (Fredy Montero was MLS Exhibit A). Johannsson doesn't have this issue. If there's a goal to be dug out of the mud, he'll find it. He'll break into space, relentlessly tag onto central defenders' back shoulders and will stay tethered to the box. It's this ability that should generate excitement. We'll pump the brakes on the Mathis comparisons until (or if) he gets into a U.S. kit, but he's off to a good start.

His second goal in this string is similar: Johannsson finds himself in that same left-central channel in the box and ping-pongs in the third arm of a one-two-three action.

The third goal is similarly devoid of theatrics but equally efficient, as Johannsson redirects in an easy sitter. Right place. Right time. These all look so easy and defy the unwritten rule that YouTube goal montages must dropkick our pleasure receptors. Heck, Johannsson's hat trick happens so fast that the video isn't even a montage. It's a clip four minutes and thirty nine seconds long that happens to feature three goals. And it has barely 19,000 hits. What's believed to be the fifth fastest hat trick in history—if you believe The Mirror—has gotten barely a sniff on the Internet's viral video marketplace. The curse of the Simple Striker. Joe-Max Moore is not impressed.

This is not the sum of Johannsson's game. He possesses a startling ability to wow. There are several examples, but the below video, shot in a snowy paradise, is the best of the lot. A thunderbolt from the frozen temple of Thor. What I want you to see here is how quickly this thing arrives on the keeper. In these conditions it almost seems impossible, but the practiced Johannsson viewer has seen the kernel of this in his simpler goals. The ball is gone so fast that any chance the keeper had to react was nullified. Johannsson's feet may not be the quickest on the pitch, but his mind is often on a different plane. The knocks on Johannsson have traditionally orbited around his lack of strength and quickness. Both are put forward relatively plainly throughout his youthful career, though neither are insurmountable. The trouble he'll face here—should he be given the chance and decide to play for the U.S.—are not these tie-down ropes in so many words, but rather the lack of premeditated knowledge on the part of the coaching staff. When Jurgen Klinsmann dialed up Johannsson shortly after his hat trick (when Johannsson was nearly 22), it represented the U.S. national team's first real dip into his career. Otherwise they had Jozy Altidore's maturation and Terrence Boyd's development and Teal Bunbury's ACL and Chris Wondolowski's golden boot chase… all these things clouded the vision. How could a relatively unknown young 20-something in Scandanavia carve a piece for himself from the white noise?

It is yet unclear whether Johannsson has something that, say, Chris Wondolowski does not. Or that he can do something that Herculez Gomez cannot do with more efficiency. And does Johannsson warrant a valuable roster spot over other developing strikers his age—namely Boyd and Altidore? All questions that must be answered in time.

The key here is that Johannsson is a curiously unknown blood platelet floating through a vein that is more or less well known to the U.S. player pool. It's both a help and a hindrance. He is sharp without being fast, smart without being ingenious, and clinical without being deadly. He has a poacher's instinct, is calm in the area, and has plenty of stamina in reserve. If it sounds familiar, it's because he's Chris Wondolowski, though slightly more fleet of foot and seven years younger.

And, to quell any notion to the contrary, there is absolutely a place on this team for someone like that. Had Wondo been as he is now some seven years ago? Who knows? We know Johannsson can score in the Danish Superliga. Whether or not he can produce for the U.S. is a question Klinsmann and a baited country hopes they get a chance to answer in the coming months.

What's your take on Johannsson and his scoring jag? Would you like to see him represent the Stars and Stripes? Think it will be likely? Share your thoughts below.

Next up on The Striker's hit parade—a look at Jozy Altidore's puzzling national team career.

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