As the U.S. progressed through three hard-fought matches to advance from a tough Gold Cup group last week, opportunity arose.
For the team, there was recognition that while they had difficult moments, nearly the entire roster had contributed to winning the group. Individually, three new additions were brought in to make their mark on the tournament, while some of those that stayed earned a bigger opportunity to play, beginning with Saturday’s Quarterfinal against Cuba.
Perhaps no one better advantage of their opportunity than forward Aron Johannsson, who stepped into the starting XI next to Clint Dempsey following Jozy Altidore’s departure. The 24-year-old combined well at times with his veteran front line partner as Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes ran the U.S. out to a 2-0 lead inside the first 15 minutes.
Then it was Johannsson’s turn to take center stage. Just after the half-hour mark, Michael Bradley hit a well-paced ball over the top as the fleet-footed attacker perfectly timed his run to get an extra step on the Cuba back line. Johannsson let the ball bounce as the defenders closed but saw Cuban goalkeeper Diosvelis Guerra off his line, and rather than try to dribble through markers, cleverly chipped his effort home from the top of the penalty area.
The goal was his first in Gold Cup play, but would have been his second if his first-half strike against Haiti hadn’t been incorrectly ruled offside.
“For a striker to get his first goal of the tournament, it’s huge,” Johannsson told ussoccer.com. “Obviously I would have hoped it would come sooner, but to score in the knockout stage is always good.”
Johannsson wasn’t done there, as he and Bradley linked up against just before the break. This time it was to keep the captain’s corner kick from the left in bounds at the back post. He headed back across goal for Omar Gonzalez to swipe home his first international goal.
Just after the hour mark, Cuban defender Angel Horta upended Johannsson as he made a play in the box to reach a Brad Evans cross from the right, giving referee Henry Bejarano no choice but to point to the spot where Dempsey then converted his second of the match.
“We got a lot of opportunities,” Johannsson continued. “We had that mindset that everybody wanted to score. We tried on every single attack like we had to score a goal. I think every player on the pitch wanted to get a goal in.”
While Johannsson got a bigger chance with Altidore’s departure following the group stage, he said his mindset and approach never changed.
“Even when Jozy was here along with the other players that left, I wanted to give 100 percent every training session. When Jozy leaves, of course there comes another striker and there’s still a huge competition for a spot on the team. I have to deliver on every training session and every game to make sure I keep getting my opportunities.”
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has brought Aron Johannsson along with the USMNT, helping the striker continually refine his game.
Being a part of three of the six goals against Cuba gave Johannsson passing marks from Klinsmann and the possibility to earn another start in Wednesday’s Semifinal against Jamaica.
“It’s important to keep growing and get the opportunity to score goals, and when you have them put them in,” said the U.S. head coach. “That’s how he was throughout the game – he was hungry, he was waiting for the next opportunity. That builds more confidence, it gives you a bit more standing in the group and when somebody is leaving a camp and somebody else is coming in, it’s about repositioning the ranking in the team. He wants to move up in the ranking, there’s no doubt about it.”
Having received his first international start and his second cap in the World Cup qualifier on Oct. 11, 2013, against the Reggae Boyz, Johannsson knows they’ll provide no easy path to the final for the U.S. team.
“That game was very difficult,” he said. “They’re a good, strong, physical team that can also play football. They have individual players with good quality; otherwise they wouldn’t be in the Semifinals of this tournament. We have to keep our complete focus on Jamaica. Obviously there’s no trophy to be won if we don’t focus on the next game.”