Aron Johannsson didn’t see Iceland make its World Cup debut last week against Lionel Messi and mighty Argentina, but it wasn’t because the former Iceland youth national teamer couldn’t bring himself to watch.
That would’ve been understandable.
After all, ever since tiny Iceland shocked the world by qualifying for the 2016 European Championship and then for Russia 2018, the 27-year-old Johannsson has been asked ad nauseam if he regrets his decision to play for the United States, where he was born to Icelandic parents studying at the University of South Alabama, instead of the country of his roots, where he moved as a toddler and developed into a top prospect before pursuing his career elsewhere in Europe.
“Everyone’s always saying that I would’ve made a different choice if I knew that Iceland would’ve made the World Cup, blah, blah, blah,” Johannsson told Yahoo Sports this week.
To be fair, nobody did.
With a population of about 334,000 – less than the U.S. city of Aurora, Colorado – Iceland is easily the smallest nation to reach the sport’s grandest stage. Back in 2012, when then USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann asked Johannsson if he’d consider representing the U.S., the possibility of Iceland participating in a World Cup seemed as likely as the Americans missing one.
Johannsson had already been summoned by Iceland’s senior squad by then. Only an injury prevented him from appearing in a pair of World Cup qualifiers that October. Had he stepped on the field, he would’ve become ineligible for the U.S. under FIFA rules.
Klinsmann was persistent, though. The following summer, Johannsson informed FIFA of his decision to switch allegiances to his birth nation, ending his career with Iceland before it really began.
It seemed that Johannsson had made a wise choice when the U.S. cruised to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, while Iceland narrowly missed out. The decision looked even smarter when Johannsson was pressed into emergency duty in the Americans’ tournament-opening 2-1 win over Ghana after fellow striker Jozy Altidore went down with a torn hamstring, even if a nagging foot ailment prevented Johannsson from playing in final three U.S. matches.
But what if he had the benefit of hindsight?
“You want to know if I would’ve made the same decision if I knew everything I know today?” Johannsson laughed.
“Yes, I would make the same decision – and I say the same thing to my friends and family – because playing for the U.S. has been unbelievable,” he said. “I’ve had so many great experiences, and hopefully I will have many more.”
Playing in a World Cup obviously tops his list. Johannsson calls that cameo against Ghana “the best day of my life in soccer.” He remains disappointed that the U.S. failed to make this summer’s competition, but he also knows that he probably wouldn’t have been in Russia even if he’d chosen Iceland instead.
Johannsson has been plagued by an absurdly long list of injuries over the last three years. He’s been limited to just 27 appearances since 2015 for German Bundesliga club Werder Bremen. On the rare occasions he’s been healthy, he’s performed well; he scored in the German Cup in February after returning from an Achilles injury, then notched an important equalizer in the league against Borussia Monchengladbach before getting hurt yet again.
“It’s not like I’m getting muscle injuries,” Johannsson said. “It’s been by knee, my ankle, my hip. It’s just been very unfortunate. But my luck has to change. I know my qualities and I know what I can bring. I just need to stay healthy.”
The run of misfortune extended all the way though Iceland’s World Cup opener. Johannsson was flying home from Germany following a check-up with Bremen’s medical staff when Iceland’s historic first match kicked off.
“Fortunately I had internet on the plane, and a couple of friends told me everything that was going on,” he said. But it was difficult not to watch.”
Slowly but surely, Johannsson is returning to full fitness. He was just cleared to begin running. He’s hoping to participate in most of Werder’s preseason with the aim of earning a spot in manager Florian Kohfeldt’s front line, where he’ll compete for minutes alongside young American striker Josh Sargent.
With his contract expiring next summer, the upcoming season is hugely important for the opportunistic forward, who has four goals in 19 caps for the U.S. He’s cautiously optimistic about his chances.
“The coach believes in me and knows what I can do,” Johannsson said of Kohfeldt. “For a striker, when you have the feeling that you don’t have to look over your shoulder every time, you get even better. If I stay fit I can help Werder Bremen and hopefully the national team as well.”
Down the road he’d like to play in Major League Soccer. Clubs in the United States have inquired about Johannsson’s availability “during almost every transfer window” over the last few years, but the timing was never right.
“I want to make my mark in the Bundesliga, show myself and everybody else that I’m good enough to play there,” he said. “But for sure I will play in the U.S. It’s just a matter of time.”
Suiting up for the USMNT again is a more immediate dream. He’s already been in touch with new general manager Earnie Stewart; Stewart was an executive with Dutch club AZ Alkmaar when Johannsson played there for two seasons. Early in his first year at AZ, Stewart fired manager Gertjan Verbeek with the humble club sitting a more than respectable fourth in the Eredivisie standings.
“He’s not afraid to make a big decision,” Johannsson said of Stewart. “You need a guy that is bold, brave, and is going to help bring the program forward. Earnie is perfect for that.”
With the U.S. idle until September, any reunion will have to wait. First up for Johannsson is a quick vacation to San Francisco with his girlfriend. The city holds special meaning for Johannsson; his first goal for the U.S. on American soil came in a pre-2014 World Cup tune-up at Candlestick Park against Azerbaijan.
He scheduled his outbound flight so he could watch Iceland’s second World Cup match, on Friday against Nigeria, at the airport. He’ll take in their Group D finale versus Croatia from California, and will be cheering particularly hard for childhood friends Johann Gudmundsson and Alfred Finnbogason.
“I’m very happy for Iceland and my friends on the team,” Johannsson said. “I’ve also played in a World Cup, and I should’ve been in the Copa America in 2016, another huge tournament, but I was unlucky with injuries. I made my decision to play for the U.S. and I’m so proud of it. I’m so happy that I did.”
Do his buddies ever tease him about it?
“No, they support my decision as well,” Johannsson said. “Hopefully we’ll all be in Qatar in 2022.”
More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
• Bushnell: Who’s to blame for Argentina disaster?
• Schaerlaeckens: Messi’s World Cup legacy is fizzling out
• Underappreciated Pogba emblematic of why France is dangerous
• Schaerlaeckens: Time for Mexican fans to end homophobic chant