You want to talk World Cup hangover? Talk to Aron Johannsson. The US national team's Alabama-born, Iceland-raised striker is recovering from a serious one. The term, used to explain the drop in form and general misfortune that seems to befall World Cup participants in the season following the tournament, is a favorite of the German media; and it seems to have entered the American vernacular through Team USA's German coach Jurgen Klinsmann. If other guys are feeling a little metaphorically dehydrated, Johannsson has gone through the World Cup equivalent of being dumped unconscious at a hospital by a bunch of frat bros in the dead of night.
Coming off the best season of his life—scoring 26 goals in 51 appearances for his Dutch club AZ Alkmaar—Johannsson achieved his boyhood dream: he was selected for and played in the World Cup. He was 23 years old.
But high highs sometimes go with low lows. The team didn't announce this during the tournament, but Johannsson was injured almost the entire time he was in Brazil. After playing in the US's opener against Ghana, Johannsson didn't just sit out the rest of the tournament, he sat out the next six months. As if the injuries weren't enough, in the off season, Johannsson's childhood friend, Icelandic winger Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, with whom Johannsson had played soccer since the age of 14, transferred from AZ to English Championship team Charlton Athletic.
"[The last six months] were probably the hardest period of my career so far," Johannsson says. We're seated in the corner of an Italian café just across from the Burger King in Holland's Schiphol Airport, and he's just wolfed down a panini. The black, military-style parka he slid out of after emerging from the bustling crowd looks fit for Iceland, but might be overkill for the 40-degree December day here in the Netherlands. He looks bigger than he was the last time I saw him, in February, like he's been spending a lot of time in the gym.
The airport might seem an inconvenient place to meet, but it's not as weird as you'd think. It's just a 15 minute train ride from central Amsterdam, connected by around five trains an hour. The terminal's vibe is more upscale shopping mall than public transit hellhole. There's an H&M just around the corner from the cafe. But Johannsson isn't here to shop. He's on a much more important errand. He's just dropped off some friends and family and he's waiting to pick up his girlfriend Bryndis, who is returning from a short trip home to Iceland. Johannsson credits Bryndis with keeping him sane as he struggled through the pain and frustration of his multiple injuries—which has not been easy.
"I kind of feel sorry for her, because I would go out on the pitch, you know, scheduled to train with the team, and then something would come up and I couldn't, because my ankle wasn't ready or something," he says. "Then I would get even more frustrated and all of that frustration goes out on her. But she helped me."
Johannsson also had the benefit of being able to relive his World Cup experience over and over again—if only in his head. The memories of being on the field in Arenas das Dunas in Natal, Brazil helped him keep his spirits up. The thought of going to another World Cup in four years has kept him focused. He already relates his time in Brazil like it's an old story, with a little twinkle in his eye and a faint smile.
"Obviously [the best part] was when I came on," he says. "It was unfortunate for Jozy [Altidore]. He got injured. But as soon as he got injured, me and Wondo [Chris Wondolowski], we started to warm up. We didn't know who was going on. Then all of the emotions started going through my body. I wouldn't say I was nervous. I was more excited: My first minutes coming on in the World Cup! Then they yelled my name and I'm getting ready and I'm thinking, Oh shit, I'm coming on in the World Cup! But as soon as I got on the pitch it was just about giving everything I have."
While his effort wasn't ever in question, his play in that game seemed slightly diminished. In March, his ankle began to trouble him. He calls it an "overuse injury" having to do with an "extra bone" in his ankle. That sounds bad, but he could play on it. AZ wanted him to have an operation right after the season, but they allowed him to postpone it for the World Cup.
"When we came into [World Cup] pre-camp, it was kind of like going into pre-season again with my team. Because, you know, we have to work hard, and we have to be in our best shape, and so it was a little bit hard.
"At the beginning there was that 30-man group. It was a little bit, you know, harder. Am I going or am I not going? The players all wondering if they're going or not. But still, you know, everyone is friends. No one tried to injure another player so he would have a better chance. All good guys. And then it got cut down to 23 players. Yeah. Obviously I was happy that we were all going and team spirit was great."
The World Cup's biggest off-field storyline for the US team had to do with Jurgen Klinsmann leaving Landon Donovan off the roster. Donovan is the best player ever to play for the United States. Leaving him off the team was certainly not expected from Klinsmann, and those who called it a mistake were only emboldened when Altidore went down injured. When Johannsson, Jozy's natural replacement, received limited minutes, questions about what kind of shape Johannsson was in made Klinsmann's decision seem even stranger. Had the coach taken an injured player over a team legend?
Johannsson could grit his teeth and play through the ankle pain, but in Brazil, another old injury began to flare up: "I had a hernia in 2012. They did the surgery, but apparently they didn't make it good enough." Johannsson couldn't remember exactly what set it off, but said it began bothering him right when they got to Brazil—long after Klinsmann had cut Donovan.
"In training, I couldn't show my level," Johannsson says. "I was in the physio room four hours a day trying to get ready. [They would do] everything. Treatment, needles, ice, everything. They tried everything. In the [Ghana] game, I had no problem. I felt nothing. I don't know if it was the excitement and the adrenaline, but you know in trainings after that I couldn't show the coaches or the players my best level."
I asked him if he thought Donovan should have been there.
"I don't know," Johannsson says. "I think the group of players that went to the World Cup deserved to go. Obviously Donovan is a great player and has been huge for the US. It's not on me to comment on that. It's the coach's decision and we have to respect that."
Johannsson says working with Klinsmann, a former top striker and a World Cup winner, was one of the most intense experiences of his life. Tim Howard recently remarked that he felt micromanaged by Klinsmann. But Johannsson—who hadn't read Howard's comments—felt Klinsmann's constant pressure was a positive: "You know, I'm still young and sometimes I'm having more fun and maybe not concentrating or giving it everything. So for me, personally, it's nice to have someone pushing me all the time."
That constant pushing made an impact on Johannsson. The biggest lessons he learned at the tournament were about professionalism, about being prepared and focused. He's carried that into his injured spell at AZ. "For example, Jurgen has been saying to me is that I have to be stronger and be more physical, so I was working a lot in the gym."
His role at AZ also forces a certain kind of professional maturity on Johannsson. "In Holland I'm old," he says with a laugh. "I swear! In my team, I'm probably the 3rd or 4th oldest guy." With the national team, Johannsson can look to the more experienced guys: Dempsey, Altidore, Howard. At AZ he is the experienced guy. "I'm taking more responsibility."
AZ is currently in fifth place in the Eredivisie, seven points out of second place and Champions League qualification. If Johansson can help AZ make up that ground, it would be quite an achievement. But that's more long-term. Right now, he's still fighting that World Cup hangover, still feeling a bit groggy.
"With every game, I'm getting more and more match fit. I wouldn't say right now I'm 100% match fit. During the end of games, I'm a little bit tired. My touches aren't as good as they are in the first minutes, so it's a little bit of a frustrating period still. But I'm getting there."
After two surgeries, Johannsson returned to the field in November and has played six games, scoring twice. He's looking forward to getting through the next two games and making it to the winter break. Then, he'll go through a little pre-season with the team and finally put these last six months behind him.
Before he leaves, we talk a little bit more about the Cup. I ask him which players impressed him. Like everybody else, he names James Rodriguez. "I knew his name but I didn't know that he was going to be a star," he says. In the US camp, DeAndre Yedlin was the biggest surprise: "He played like he's played five World Cups before. Especially in the game against Belgium, where he killed his now-teammate [Jan] Vertonghen, dribbling like he wasn't there, five, six times."
What about the teams the US played against? Did any Ghanaians impress? No. Germany was great, he said, but no individuals stood out. And Portugal?
"Portugal," he says, "they were shit." We both laugh as he leans over the table to see if my recorder is working. "No, but seriously, we played better. We deserved to win."
With that, he gets up, and slides into his parka. Then, with a big smile, he's off to see Bryndis.