In an alternate reality, the U.S. men’s national team is preparing for the 2018 World Cup. Jonathan Gonzalez, the teenage midfielder from California who chose Mexico over the USMNT after the latter failed to qualify for Russia, is one of 23 American players headed to the tournament. And maybe Bjorn Johnsen is, too.
If you’re a U.S. fan and you’ve never heard of Johnsen, you’re not alone. The 26-year-old New York City native really only made his name in Europe this season, finishing second in scoring in the Dutch Eredivise – a league that counts all-world attackers like Luis Suarez and Arjen Robben as alumni – with 19 goals.
Not bad for a guy who grew up playing club and high school soccer in North Carolina before heading overseas, where teams in Germany’s Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga are now chasing his signature. Clearly, Johnsen is another one who got away.
“I used to watch the World Cup and dream about being in [Clint] Dempsey’s or [Landon] Donovan’s shoes,” Johnsen, in an interview with Yahoo Sports, said of the joint-top scorers in U.S. history.
The call from U.S. Soccer never came. So last summer the dual citizen accepted an invite from Norway for a World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic. When Johnsen came off the bench with 20 minutes to play, he was tied to Norway for good.
Months later, the Americans’ epic failure to make it to Russia effectively sealed ex-U.S. youth international Gonzalez decision to commit to Cup-bound Mexico.
Gonzalez has since lost his starting job with Monterrey. He didn’t make El Tri’s preliminary World Cup roster. In that alternate universe, he’s probably a squad player, at best, in Bruce Arena’s final 23.
Then there’s Johnsen, whose career season combined with long-term injuries to veteran U.S. forwards Jozy Altidore, Aron Johannsson and Jordan Morris, could have put him in contention for real minutes this summer.
“I really enjoyed playing with him,” said U.S. national teamer Perry Kitchen, Johnsen’s former teammate at Scottish club Hearts. “He doesn’t need much to score – he can make something out of nothing. He’s a great player and a good dude.”
Yet it’s hard to fault U.S. Soccer too much for overlooking him.
The Americans were still reeling from World Cup qualifying losses to Mexico and Costa Rica in November 2016, when Johnsen was Scottish Premiership player of the Month.
Bruce Arena had just replaced Jurgen Klinsmann.
Both coaches had Johnsen on their radar at one point, and Johnsen actually chose Hearts in part because Kitchen was the club’s captain. The U.S. staff would be watching their games.
Indeed, Arena scouted Hearts’ 4-1 win over Rangers in early 2017. (Johnsen had an assist in a game that featured three Yanks: Johnsen, Kitchen and Rangers’ Emerson Hyndman.)
But when the time came for Arena to name a squad for the next two qualifiers, Johnsen had lost his starting job.
“Timing is everything,” said Kitchen, who ate Thanksgiving dinner with Johnsen in Edinburgh that year. “He didn’t have his breakout season until now.”
Like many Americans, the lanky Johnsen – he’s 6-foot-5 – has been called a late bloomer. His father disagrees.
“I think he screwed around too much when he first came to Europe,” said Oslo-born Hasse Johnsen, who has lived in the U.S. for almost three decades.
“He came over there thinking he was a superstar, but you have to work for a living. He was sitting on the bench with 30-year-olds. He had to grow up. It made him tougher.”
Bouncing around Europe did, too. Johnsen spent his junior year of high school in Oslo, living with an aunt and uncle and playing for Valerenga’s youth team. He returned to Raleigh for his senior season at Broughton High School (and travel soccer with local power Triangle United), earning college scholarship offers from UConn, Syracuse, N.C. State and others. But his dream was to be a pro.
His first stop was Norwegian lower division side Tonsberg. Over the next four years he played for second-tier clubs in Spain, Portugal and Bulgaria. Then, after scoring six goals in 34 games in Scotland, he was off ADO Den Haag.
Playing as a target striker in a 4-3-3 formation proved to be the perfect fit, but not immediately.
“After three games I got benched,” Johnsen said. “I’d scored once and they told me that wasn’t good enough. I thought I was doing great. That’s probably what pushed me to get 19 goals. It opens your eyes as an American. Like, maybe we’re not good enough. Maybe we need to push harder. I lost my position. It was a wakeup call. In the end it was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.”
To hear Johnsen tell it, the forgiving American soccer culture prevents talented players from reaching their full potential.
“There’s so many players [in the U.S.] good enough even for the top league in Holland, but they’re not really focused on it because that’s not how our system is,” he said. “I could probably name 10 players just from Raleigh that were good enough to make it but ended up going to college instead.”
Johnsen took a different path. And eventually he realized his dream of playing internationally, even if the lifelong New York Knicks fan won’t ever represent the country he was born and raised in.
“He’s the kind of guy that shows when you have determination and grit over a longer period of time, you can do it,” said LA Galaxy forward Ola Kamara, Johnsen’s Norwegian teammate.
“For him to go from the third division in Norway to the national team and being among the top scorers in the Dutch league is unbelievable. It’s something you want to tell your children about, that if you work hard, you’ll be rewarded.”
It doesn’t get more real than that.
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• Why Mohamed Salah is more than just the Prem’s best player
• What Christian Pulisic lost when the U.S. missed the World Cup