STANFORD, Calif.— Aron Johannsson has scored plenty of goals over the course of the past year, but perhaps none of them was as important as the one he delivered on an emotional night in Panama last fall.
It was a night neither Mexican National Team fans nor Panamanians will soon forget, and one that will certainly remain with Johannsson.
In second-half stoppage time of a match Panama was winning, a match that would move Panama one step closer to the World Cup and eliminate Mexico, Graham Zusi scored an equalizing goal that stunned the home team and its fans. So much so that the team could barely respond as Johannsson promptly followed up Zusi’s goal with his own beautiful strike in the dying seconds of the match.
Johannsson's strike didn’t change the outcome of the match, but it did put the final dagger in Panama’s World Cup dreams, while also giving Johannsson something he had been craving badly: his first international goal.
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“I think most strikers can agree that the first goal is very important,” Johannsson said at pre-World Cup training camp at Stanford University on Wednesday. “It kind of takes the weight off of your shoulders. It’s kind of hard to describe how and why it is, but it’s nice to get it off my back. Hopefully, it was just the first of many."
Johannsson remembered the goal fondly, acknowledging that up to that point, he had been feeling the pressure after not scoring in his first three appearances following his decision to play for the United States instead of Iceland. You could sense there was a sense of bittersweetness about that first goal, due to the raw emotion generated by a stadium filled with devastated Panama players and fans.
“Obviously, we wanted to go to Panama and win the game,” Johannsson said. “The crowd was buzzing in the 89th minute and everybody was thinking they were probably going to the World Cup. Then Zusi scored the goal in the 90th minute and the whole stadium just shut down. Players just broke down on the field and started crying. It was kind of an emotional moment.
“Then, when I scored the winning goal, obviously it was good for me to score a goal. We won the game, and that’s what we wanted, but the atmosphere in the stadium was pretty strange. It was strange to score that goal, but I was happy with it.”
Jurgen Klinsmann must be happy with how the 23-year-old Johannsson’s past year has gone. He took over as AZ Alkmaar’s lead striker after Jozy Altidore left and proceeded to score 26 goals in all competitions. Though an injury cost him some games down the stretch of the season, Johannsson still showed considerable improvement and maturation.
"They grow, they grow. It's just a developmental path that you go through,” Klinsmann said on Wednesday of Johannsson and Terrence Boyd. “Sooner or later you break through in the National Team like (Chris Wondolowski) did. In the last two years he was also missing those goals with us and then the Gold Cup came and Wondo came.
“For Aron and Terrence, they're just with us for a year or two, it's the same path. They build up more confidence in their club teams, they get the goals in their club teams, they understand the different levels between wherever they play and the national team and where they play and other leagues, so it's just a path they have to go through and develop and be hungry every day on the training field and build that consistency and confidence to do it also on an international stage. It's just a normal journey that they're going through.”
Though it is safe to call him a lock for the final 23-man roster, Johannsson isn’t taking anything for granted. He knows the competition is fierce at forward, with Boyd and Wondolowski fighting alongside him for what will probably be two forward spots.
Johannsson is ready to fight for his World Cup dream, starting this week in training camp, and he knows what’s at stake. He is playing for not only himself, but for his native country of Iceland, which has never played in a World Cup and never had a native-born son play at the World Cup.
Though there was some nasty backlash aimed at Johannsson when he initially chose the USA over Iceland, the young forward believes most Icelanders will be rooting for him if he makes it to Brazil.
“Iceland is a small country of people, 330,000 or something,” Johannsson said. “In the beginning, they weren’t too happy about my decision, but, now everybody’s excited to hopefully see the first guy with an Icelandic background in the World Cup. I think at least most of the people there are rooting for me and they’re happy.
“If I go to Brazil, I hope so. It was my decision and everybody has their own opinion. They were not happy with it then, but, hopefully, they will root for me in Iceland and, hopefully, when I come back, they’ll root for me then.”