After a brief but electric cameo in the U.S. team's August friendly against Bosnia, 22-year-old Aron Johannsson showed this week he should very much be a part of Jurgen Klinsmann's plans for the 2014 World Cup.
Johannsson's tall, blonde figure is easily picked out on the pitch, but as much for his distinctive play as for his looks. His movements off the ball appear quick and purposeful. His ball control seems confident, and the passes he plays look like they'd fit right in with some of the most patient and sophisticated possession teams in Europe. Even when off target, most of his shot attempts are struck cleanly and with power to spare.
In short, he passes the eye test.
Yes, he's largely unproven on either the club or international level. But his game already hints at a physical and technical ceiling matched by only a few American players before him.
Getting his first national team start against Jamaica Friday night, Johannsson was paired with Jozy Altidore in an aggressive 4-4-2 formation, a tactic that was probably creditable for a first half most distinguished by disjointed midfield play and bad turnovers. The lack of midfield cohesion meant the young striker was perhaps too willingly dropping deep into the midfield to chase the ball instead of working his way into threatening positions, but nevertheless looked to be the most dangerous U.S. player, coming close on a couple half chances in the box.
Coming on in the second half in Panama Tuesday night, Johannsson again gravitated to a deeper lying role, although this time he found much more in the way of combination play with the U.S. midfielders. His game-winning goal in stoppage time came against an already heartbroken Panamanian defense, but the setup and strike was a clear indication of the quality he possesses. On current form, Klinsmann would be crazy not to include Johannsson in his 23-man World Cup roster and has to consider him to at least be one of his first offensive options off the bench.
Perhaps the only player to help himself more than Johannsson in the two matches this week was Sporting Kansas City's Graham Zusi. The midfielder, while probably always comfortable in his inclusion on the Word Cup squad, had slipped in and out of the national team's starting lineup over the course of this year's qualifiers and had perhaps dropped a bit in the selection hierarchy after the return of Landon Donovan from his much-talked about sabbatical.
It was fairly surprising to see Zusi not start in front of his home crowd against Jamaica, but after Donovan played a horrendous first half, Zusi made up for lost time, coming on as a halftime substitute and dominating play the rest of the way. His goal wasn't a thing of beauty, but it was an apropos reflection of the workrate and creativity he brought to the U.S. attack. It was his incisive ball wide to Alejandro Bedoya that created the space for the chance.
The U.S. was also helped in the second half against Jamaica by reverting to their more familiar 4-5-1 setup, with an extra player to connect things in midfield. They'd keep this setup in Panama and Zusi would once again prove influential. While his passing suffered a bit in the wet conditions, his constant movement and aggression make him a tough cover for defenses and his persistence finally paid off when he got his head on the end of Brad Davis' cross for the equalizer.
Klinsmann's midfield puzzle is still hard to work out, especially with key players injured, but Zusi has shown that the Americans are much more dangerous going forward with him on the field. His tendency to wander inside from his wide position is often what makes him most dangerous, but could also prove a defensive liability against superior opposition. At minimum, his step up in play helps U.S. fans lose a little less sleep over the questionable health and form of Clint Dempsey...
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