NEW YORK — The U.S. national soccer team’s best hope for goals at the World Cup may lie with a 23-year-old forward who was born in Alabama, grew up in Iceland, trained for a year in Florida, scored by the bundles in Denmark and the Netherlands and bears a striking resemblance to actor Kevin Bacon.
Introducing Aron Johannsson, an Icelandic American with clever feet, a cultivated shot and the capability of cracking Coach Juergen Klinsmann’s starting lineup at some point during the group stage in Brazil this month.
A dual national who made 10 appearances for Iceland’s under-21 squad, Johannsson exercised his right under FIFA rules to switch affiliations last year. Since debuting in a U.S. friendly at Bosnia in August, he received regular call-ups and became a sure bet for the 23-man World Cup roster.
In the first of three home tuneups Tuesday, Johannsson entered in the second half and scored the second goal in a 2-0 victory over Azerbaijan in San Francisco. The Americans will face Turkey on Sunday afternoon at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., before moving operations to Florida for the last week of domestic preparations.
“Everyone was so open and so welcoming,” Johannsson said Friday. “From the first time in Bosnia, I was there for two or three days and I already felt part of the group.”
The change did not sit well with Icelandic fans or the country’s soccer federation, which, upon his swap, condemned the move. “Aron has no link to soccer in the USA at all,” it said in a written statement. “There is no logic behind Aron relinquishing his Icelandic soccer identity.”
Perhaps some logic: Iceland has never qualified for the World Cup, although it came close this cycle, finishing second to Switzerland in a European group and losing to Croatia in a two-leg playoff. The United States is competing in the tournament for the seventh consecutive time.
Johannsson has declined to specify reasons for his switch, other than to say, “In the end, it was my decision.” And after the initial uproar in Iceland, “now they are happy to have a guy going to the World Cup who was raised up in Iceland.”
The U.S. squad includes seven players of mixed nationality: five with German ties, one with Norwegian roots and Johannsson, whose Icelandic parents, Johan and Helga, were studying at the University of South Alabama in Mobile when Aron was delivered. U.S. birth equals U.S. citizenship and U.S. soccer eligibility.
“The first time he told me he was from Alabama,” said goalkeeper Brad Guzan, a former University of South Carolina star, “I didn’t believe him.”
The family lived in Alabama for three additional years before returning to Iceland, where Johannsson took up fotbolti (soccer). The family vacationed regularly in Florida, and on one occasion, Johannsson’s mother looked into possible soccer activities for her teenage son. An internet search uncovered IMG Academy in Bradenton, which offered a week-long camp.
The following year, in 2007, he returned on his own for two semesters of school and intensive soccer as part of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s freshly launched development academy, geared toward elite youth players.
Johannsson considered U.S. colleges but returned home to sign with Fjolnir in Reykjavik. After two seasons in Iceland’s obscure circuit, he stepped up to the Danish league and flourished at AGF Aarhus.
While in Denmark, his resemblance to Bacon prompted a fan-produced YouTube video, featuring the “Footloose” theme song as the soundtrack to his stretching exercises. “It’s not only about the looks,” he deadpanned. “It’s about the dance moves.”
Early in 2013, after netting 14 goals in 18 appearances and posting a hat trick in less than four minutes, he took his fancy moves up another rung on the European ladder, to the Dutch league and AZ Alkmaar.
Among his new teammates was U.S. striker Jozy Altidore. With Johannsson serving as a lightly utilized understudy, Altidore recorded 31 goals across all competitions — the most ever by an American in Europe.
Altidore helped persuade Johannsson to look into playing for the United States. “Jozy never said, ‘If you don’t come and play for the U.S., I am going to hurt you,’ ” Johannsson joked. “He told me good things about the federation and the team.”
When Altidore moved to Sunderland in the English Premier League last summer, Johannsson flourished at AZ with 26 goals in 53 overall appearances in 2013-14. His 17 markers in the domestic league, the Eredivisie, ranked third behind Iceland’s Alfreo Finnbogason from Heerenveen (29) and Italy’s Graziano Pelle from Feyenoord (23).
Last week, AZ extended Johannsson’s contract by a year through the 2017-18 season. AZ does not expect to retain him until the end of the deal. “I would love to take a few more years there, and if I do well, then I go away if someone wants to come buy me,” he said.
Starting this season, Johannsson will work under one of the greatest scorers of the past 25 years: former Dutch striker Marco van Basten, AZ’s new coach.
“It’s amazing he immediately became our top scorer in his first full season,” said AZ technical director Earnie Stewart, a Dutch-American who played on three U.S. World Cup teams. “Hopefully Aron continues this trajectory so that he will bring AZ many great things.”
Klinsmann, who is under contract through the 2018 World Cup, hopes for many great things this summer and beyond.
“Everyone sees the quality he offers,” Klinsmann said. “He is still a young player but his development is moving along nicely.”