Four weeks ago, U.S. Men’s National Team forward Aron Johannsson and his club AZ Alkmaar were seven points out of the third-place position in the Eredivisie. That third-place spot is particularly important because it guarantees the club that holds it a qualifying spot in the Europa League. With that many points to overcome, many of the AZ players were resigned to the fact that if they were going to play Europa League, they’d more than likely have to earn their place during the post-season playoffs.
“When we lost against Feyenoord six games ago we thought we were going to the playoffs,” Johannsson said. “For the rest of the games we were mentally preparing ourselves as if we were going into the playoffs.”
But that was four weeks ago.
On Sunday, Johannsson scored two goals and added an assist to lead Alkmaar to a 4-1 win over Excelsior. The win landed AZ in third place in Eredivisie, clinching a sport in the Europa League. It was an improbable run highlighted by a hot streak of performances from the MNT forward that began three weeks ago.
Following a 3-1 win against ADO Den Haag, AZ matched up with FC Twente on April 26. Thirty-five minutes into the game, Alkmaar found itself up 2-0 after Johannsson flicked a cross into the back of the net with the outside of his left foot. Johannsson and the team held on for the remaining 65 minutes, and for the first time since February, AZ had won back-to-back games. The positive result berthed a positive thought. If AZ could keep winning, maybe they had a chance.
“We went into the game against NAC Breda realizing third place was possible.” Johannsson said.
The team knew that continuing to win was the only way that possibility could turn into reality, but after 82 minutes AZ trailed 2-1. In the 83rd, Robert Muhren leveled the score line for AZ, but at this stage a tie was not much more valuable than a loss. With two minutes to go, Johannsson kept the Europa League hopes alive, blasting in a stunning long-range goal from 35 yards out.
“I’ve never shot from that far before,” Johannsson said. “We needed to win the game obviously so we could have a chance at third place, and the whole game NAC Breda was defending. They had almost 11 in their own box in the last 30-40 minutes. I didn’t’ get any chances and I barely saw the ball. Finally I got the ball and it was a little bit far away, but I just said ‘screw it’ and decided to shoot on goal. Obviously the result was great.”
With the win AZ moved into a tie with Feyenoord for third with 59 points. Had the season ended that day, Feyenoord would have claimed the automatic Europe League bid based on goal differential. But there was still one game left to play. With Feyenoord holding a huge advantage in the tiebreaker, Johannsson and his teammates knew that they’d need a win in their last game with Excelsior and some luck with the other result.
“After the NAC Breda game, we were thinking the whole week about Excelsior and we knew we had to win to have any chance and hope for good results,” Johannsson said. “It was also tough for us because it was not in our own hands. In a situation like that you can only focus on yourself and get those three points and hope for the best.”
Five minutes into the match with Excelsior, AZ proved they were ready to take care of business. And Johannsson was ready for the spectacular.
“The ball came into the box and bounced high in the air. It was on turf and it was spinning a lot, so I was trying to read where the ball would eventually come down and I made it there before the defender,” Johannsson said. “The ball was at a perfect height and I just decided to do a bicycle kick. I’m really happy it worked out.”
Johannsson’s goal sent the number of AZ fans that had traveled to Stadion Woudestein into a frenzy and gave his team an early 1-0 lead. It was good thing he heard the roar of the supporters, since he wasn’t quite sure it had gone in.
“I felt it when I hit it and it felt very good,” Johannsson sad. “First I heard everybody celebrating and then I just looked up in the goal and saw the ball, so I didn’t see it in exactly the same time as everybody else. It was amazing. Not only was it a beautiful goal, but we needed to score a goal early in the game to help us build confidence and this was after five minutes. From every perspective it was really nice.”
Bicycle-kick goals are rare, but for Johannsson, this one was not a fluke.
“Two days before the game I was training, we had a striker training at the club, and I was training bicycle kicks. So it was really fortunate the ball came exactly there in this game. We were training and we had the trainer play us the ball and I was kind of taking it off my chest and putting in the air and taking, I think it was five or six bicycle kicks. So it was probably in the back of my head in the game when the ball came in that position.”