Meet Johnny: The New Jersey boy on the brink of becoming Brazilian title winner with Internacional

Johnny Internacional Luis Paz America de CaliGetty Images

By Sunday evening, Internacional will be hoping to become the second team to be crowned champions in the Estadio Maracana in the space of a month as the Covid-delayed 2020 Brasileirao finally reaches its end.

Palmeiras clinched the Copa Libertadores over Santos in the hallowed home of Brazilian football, and now Inter have the chance to take the Serie A title in a top-of-the-table clash against defending champions and fellow hopefuls Flamengo, who lie one point behind with two games left to play.

Victory over the Rio giants in their own backyard would confirm Inter's return to Brazil's elite after suffering their first-ever relegation just four years ago, as well as marking their first domestic league crown since the heyday of Falcao, Valdomiro and Jair in the 1970s.

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But it would also place firmly in the spotlight a young prospect who is turning heads north of the equator too: Joao 'Johnny' Cardoso, whose abilities in the heart of midfield have already placed him in line for a regular berth in the United States national team.

Cardoso, who turned 19 in September midway through Inter's Serie A campaign, was born more than 5,000 miles away from his current Porto Alegre home - in Denville Township, nestled in the suburban northern reaches of New Jersey some 30 miles outside New York City.

When he was just three months of age, his Brazilian parents, who ran a porcelain business in the town, decided to move back to their nation of birth. And even in Criciuma, Santa Catarina state, that early influence remained strong, most notably in his distinctly un-Brazilian name.

“It was my father who started calling me [Johnny],” he told GZH in one of his first interviews while starring for Inter's under-20s team. “John is Joao in English and Johnny is like the nickname version there. That's how it stuck here too.”

After cutting his teeth with local clubs Criciuma and Avai, Johnny was recruited by Inter at just 14 and quickly rose up the ranks. Originally a forward, he has since moved back up the field and feels more comfortable dictating play as a deep-lying midfielder, equally adept at recovering and distributing the ball.

“We started using him as [as a No.9] but we soon started seeing some very interesting things: his control of the game, tackling, pressure,” U20 coach Fabio Matias revealed to GZH.

“That's how with time I started pulling him a little further back, and by the end of the championship we'd made him into a No.5 - a defensive midfielder with attacking tendencies, that's where we see a great future for him.”

Johnny's first-team debut arrived a few days before his 18th birthday, against Atletico Mineiro, but in 2020 he took on a bigger role for Inter.

He has racked up 12 appearances in the current Serie A season, including five starts: not a huge tally, but impressive nonetheless when considering that he is competing with club captain and 2016 Olympic Games gold medallist Rafael Dourado and ex-Corinthians, Genoa and Udinese star Edenilson in the engine room.

At international level too, things have moved fast for the teen. Last November, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter called Johnny up for friendlies against Wales and Panama, making him the first player active outside of North America or Europe to be picked for more than two decades.

The youngster featured in both matches, replacing Tyler Adams off the bench in each, and left an overwhelmingly positive impression, most notably on Berhalter.

Johnny PS

“Johnny is a brave boy, if you think about it. He doesn't speak perfect English, he's 19 years old, he's had the farthest to travel to get here,” the coach said of his new charge during the international break.

“But he's still embracing everything and taking everything in his stride. He’s a great person, very good player.

“You can tell that he plays in Brazil; he's a street-smart player. Any type of physical battle, no matter who he's going against, he can deal with, no matter what his size is.

“He's quick on the ball – you can tell he's in an environment where they value the ball, where you have to take care of the ball, and where you have to play quickly.”

As with Inter, finding a regular spot in the USMNT starting line-up is likely to prove a stern challenge for Johnny. Berhalter boasts a huge array of young talent in midfield, with Adams accompanied by Juventus ace Weston McKennie, Valencia wonderkid Yunus Musah and the Earthquakes' Jackson Yueill – all of whom are aged 23 or under.

But with World Cup qualifying, the CONCACAF Nations League, Gold Cup and possibly the Olympic Games all on the country's schedule for 2021, the U.S. will need strength in depth to face up to 20 fixtures in the space of the next nine months.

At Inter too he will have no shortage of opportunities, as between the Gaucho State Championship, Libertadores, Copa do Brasil and 2021 Serie A campaign the Colorados face playing more than 60 matches before the year's end.

Johnny then has every chance to make this year a breakout season for both club and country; and while his contribution to Inter's title quest this term has been rather limited, a winners' medal would do the Porto Alegre Jersey boy's reputation no harm at all.