By Mike Woitalla
Aron Johannsson didn't celebrate the first time he scored for the USA out of respect for the distraught Panamanian opponents who had seen their World Cup dreams evaporate in stoppage time of the Americans' 3-2 victory. He even consoled one of the Panamanians after his searing 20-yard strike.
On Tuesday night in San Francisco, after his powerful header hit the Azerbaijan net to clinch the 2-0 U.S. win, the 23-year-old displayed his joy -- both arms in the air, a fist-pump, high fives and hugs. And of course a big smile on the face that resembles a young Kevin Bacon.
His first goal came in October 2013, three months after he switched his allegiance from Iceland, which he represented 10 times at the U-21 level, to the USA. The Iceland soccer federation, after Johannsson announced his intentions on Facebook, released a statement futilely urging the “the public and media to challenge Aron to continue competing for Iceland.”
Last week Johansson said, "Iceland's a small country, under 330,000 or something. In the beginning they weren't too happy about my decision but now I think everybody's excited to hopefully see the first guy from Iceland be in the World Cup.”
The odds, indeed, are strong that he will be on the field in Brazil. As the win over Azerbaijan displayed, Johansson is challenging the struggling Jozy Altidore for a spot on the frontline alongside captain Clint Dempsey, who missed Tuesday’s game because of sore groin.
While Altidore is coming off a dismal season at Sunderland in which he scored only once in 30 league games, Johannsson struck 26 times for the Netherlands’ AZ in all competitions.
Against Azerbaijan, Johannsson replaced Chris Wondolowski in the 62nd minute. In the third minute, Wondolowski squandered the USA’s best chance of the first half. He met a Graham Zusi free kick inside the goal area with a diving header but smacked the ball straight at goalkeeper Kamram Aghayev.
Klinsmann kept Altidore in the entire 90 minutes, no doubt hoping he’d get a goal to pull him out of the slump. But Altidore mis-trapped balls, mis-hit passes and was outjumped in aerial battles. When he got off a shot it flew high into the stands. He looked a bit better in the second half but didn't come close to scoring. After he did roast a defender on the wing, he sent the ball to an opponent.
Johannsson is eligible to play for the USA because he was born in Alabama. He moved to Iceland, the home of his parents, at age 3. In his teens, he returned to the USA to attend the IMG Academy for a year.
He grew up idolizing Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, who'll be working for ESPN during the World Cup.
“Scoring goals has been my thing since I was born,” said. “I always wanted to score goals since I was young.”
The USA plays two more games before traveling to Brazil as Klinsmann figures out his frontline. So far, the bad news is that Altidore remains in a rut. The good news is that Johannsson is on a roll.