BRADENTON, Fla. — Jonathan Amon may have been one of the few players at the recent U.S. youth national team summit who already have first-team experience in Europe, but you wouldn't know it meeting him. The soft-spoken South Carolina native comes off as shy and unassuming when speaking to strangers, but when you see him on a soccer field, running at defenders, you quickly realize there is nothing shy about his game.
Amon is an 18-year-old winger who has broken through with the first team at Danish side FC Nordsjaelland, having spent the past three years developing in the club's academy system. He made his first-team debut last November and quickly turned heads with his game-changing speed and fearless approach to running at defenders.
Amon honed that fearlessness and ability to take on defenders in games of two-on-two he and his three brothers played while growing up in Charleston, South Carolina. The youngest of five children, Amon was always eager to play and show what he could do, but success was tough to come by against older brothers — among them former U.S. Under-17 national team defender Joseph Amon Jr. — who didn't hold back on the tackles and tough treatment of their little brother.
"I was always trying to beat my brothers one on one," Amon told Goal. "They didn't take it easy on me, and that made me get better."
"He was always the small one out there playing with us, but his technique was so developed for his age, and sometimes better than our technique," Joseph Jr. told Goal. "With that, and his quickness, I thought he'd be the best out of all of us."
"I would do tough love on him, so I didn't really let him have anything, but then around 10 or 11 he started to give me trouble," Joseph said. "You could always see it, the talent was always there."
That tough love has helped produce a player poised to have a breakout 2018. He broke through with Nordsjaelland's first team last fall and enjoyed an impressive showing with the U.S. Under-20 national team at last month's youth summit. A right-footed winger who can play on either side but has been used on the left for his club, Amon is set to resume his season with Nordsjaelland, after the Danish SuperLiga's winter break, on Saturday against Sonderjyske. Amon will be hoping to build on the strong performances he put together in the team's final four league matches before the break.
"To be honest I didn't know it was going to come this fast," Amon said. "I wasn't playing matches on a daily basis with the academy, then the first team coach calls me in and the same week I went in the match against Lyngby and played maybe the last eight minutes. So it was a great feeling just to play in front of a crowd."
Amon wasn't used to much exposure in Denmark before turning pro, which was by design. He couldn't sign a professional contract until he turned 18, so Nordsjaelland tried keeping him under the radar. That meant picking the right spots to have Amon play with Nordsjaelland's academy teams, and even included a one-month stay with the Right to Dream Academy in Ghana.
Amon found his way to Nordsjaelland by virtue of a serendipitous chain of events that began with him being invited to attend a soccer camp in Denmark at the invitation of scout Ken Schmidt of the Global Football School in South Carolina. While in Denmark, he grew to like the environment at the Kies School, where the camp was held, and decided to enroll in the school. Soon after, he was spotted by a FC Nordsjaelland scout, who invited him to join the club's academy setup.
Letting their youngest child leave home to move to Europe and pursue an improved soccer experience wasn't an easy decision for the Amons. Joseph Sr., who moved to the United States from Nigeria to attend college, always stressed the importance of education — as evidenced by the fact his three oldest children are college graduates and the fourth oldest is currently attending Clemson University — but he also believed his youngest child had special talent, and a love for the game that could lead him to succeed.
"I had my mixed feelings on that, because I want all my children to get their college degree, but with him I knew that he had something special in him — that he could make a career out of soccer," Amon's father, Joseph Sr., told Goal. "So I supported him pursuing his passion.
"That said, I told him he has a lot of free time on his hands now so he should be taking some courses online."
The move to Denmark was a challenging one for Amon, who credits the support of his host family, and the structure at Nordsjaelland's academy, with helping him cope with the inevitable homesickness American players feel when they go oversees on their own at a young age.
"I know it's cliche but the hardest part was being away from my family," Amon said. "You go from seeing your parents and brothers and sister every day to only seeing them twice a year."
Amon persevered and is now being rewarded for that decision to pursue his soccer dream. He has emerged from the Nordsjaelland academy setup to earn a professional contract and place with the first team. He made his pro debut last November and finished out 2017 starting the final three league matches of the season, all Nordsjaelland victories.
"He is crazy fast," FC Nordsjaelland manager Kasper Hjulmand told reporters after a 3-1 win against FC Copenhagen. "We are talking about extreme international speed, and then he can change direction. He has a bit of the same as Emre Mor. There are so few players that get me so excited, but he does."
Amon has remained a bit of a mystery man among American soccer fans because his path to the pros didn't include him passing through Major League Soccer, featuring on the U.S. Under-17 national team or breaking into a league American fans can watch easily. He stands poised to change that in 2018, both with continued club success and his involvement in the U.S. youth national team setup. A former member of the U.S. Under-14 national team prior to his move to Denmark, Amon found himself crossing paths with several of his old U-14 teammates at the recent youth summit, while also standing out as one of the most impressive players at the camp.
"We don't have a lot of players like Jonathan in our system," U.S. Under-20 coach Tab Ramos told Goal. "His speed, and his ability to take people on is special, and he's still only 18, so we haven't seen his best yet."
Amon tried to be modest about his showing at the recent U.S. U-20 camp, where he definitely made the kind of impression that should lead to more call-ups and a big role in the next U-20 cycle.
"I feel like I did well, but I know there's a lot of stuff to work on," Amon said. "I'm still 18, and I can't be satisfied with where I am. I just want to keep improving — if you keep improving you'll keep getting playing time."
Amon is positioning himself to join the generation of American teenagers breaking through in Europe. He has watched the likes of Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie make inroads in top leagues and admits to being inspired by the new bar being set for young Americans.
"I've always thought I could become good at what I do, but when you see other young players do well you get real excited," Amon said. "I've known Tyler Adams from a while ago, just to see him doing well is really exciting, and to see other Americans doing well outside of the country is real exciting."
Now it will be Amon who could start serving as an inspiration for younger American players, as he looks to build on the success he enjoyed last year. There is already a tangible buzz in Denmark about him, not only because of his ability, but the unique qualities in his game that make him stand out in the Danish league. Qualities he developed in those pick-up games with his brothers back home in South Carolina.
"Watching him now, it’s just like he’s playing in the backyard," Joseph Jr. told Goal. "He likes to dance on the ball a little bit every now and then, he still goes at players. He’s like the same exact player I grew up watching."