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Aron Johannsson took the long way back

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The American striker’s career had seemed long-dead at Werder Bremen. Now, he might be their most important player.

Cuba v United States: Quarterfinals - 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

19 months. That’s how much time passed between Aron Johannsson’s last league goal for Werder Bremen and the goal he scored against Borussia Moenchengladbach on Friday March 2nd, 2018. A bitterly cold night in Germany, with snow dusting the field, saw Johannsson enter the game in the second half with his team down 2 goals to none. Bremen stormed back, with the lead soon being cut to one, before Johannsson saw his opportunity and took it. A low cross found Jerome Gondorf in the box, who brought the ball around his body, preparing for a shot; but it was his teammate Johannsson, who had ghosted off his man as the cross was delivered to hang back by the penalty spot, who took the ball right off Gondorf’s foot, crushing the ball into the back of the net with all of the confidence you don’t expect from someone who hasn’t scored in the Bundesliga in a year. But of course, there’s more to the story than numbers.

5 million. That’s how many Euros were initially reported as the signing fee for Johannsson when he made his big move from AZ Alkmaar to Werder Bremen in 2015. A hefty fee, and one that came with the expectations Johannsson himself had established after posting gaudy goal totals in the Netherlands. Not unlike the striker he replaced at AZ, Jozy Altidore, Aron made his name as a lethal finisher in the red and white’s 4-3-3, and parlayed that form into a move to a bigger league. This is the business of the world game as a player: play well at a lower level, get noticed by someone at a higher level, and move up. The Bundesliga represented a massive achievement for the 23 year old, moving into one of the top 4 leagues in the world.

But things didn’t go exactly to plan from there. Aron slotted into Bremen’s starting XI as a forward, and was beginning to adjust to the learning curve of the Bundesliga, netting a couple of goals to begin the 2015 campaign for a poor Werder side, when he was sidelined with abductor problems, an injury that turned into hip issues for the forward. All told, Johannsson sat out almost a year with injuries, unable to take part in any official training or games. And when he returned, he found a poor club, a struggle to recover true health and fitness, and a manager that had all but forgotten him.

Stalls happen sometimes in careers. It’s nearly impossible not to compare Johannsson’s plight to former teammate Jozy Altidore’s, who never really found his scoring touch in Sunderland, and quickly moved back to MLS. While Johannsson’s troubles were primarily based on his personal health, the comparison stuck, and many thought Johannsson would need to move away from Werder if he wanted to get his career back on track. The wisdom of moving down in order to move forward is easily challenged: for every DeAndre Yedlin making a move down a league in order to progress with a better club, there’s also Rubio Rubin, who moved so far down the ladder in Europe he nearly disappeared after washing out at FC Utrecht, from Denmark, to Norway, and nearly to MLS before Club Tijuana snapped him up. But if you can’t get playing time at one league and you haven’t played for a year, if you’re a striker that hasn’t scored in more than a year and a half, it can be hard work convincing other clubs at the same level to take a chance on you. Lower leagues represent a chance at consistency and minutes, precious commodities for a struggling pro.

Of course, Aron did not leave. Instead, he fought his way back.

On February 6th, Aron Johannsson made his first start of the 17/18 season for Werder, a DFB Pokal quartefinal against Bayer Leverkusen. He tallied an assist and scored the winning goal. On February 24th, he came off the bench against Hamburger SV to force the winning goal, a low hard shot that beat the keeper and HSV defender Rick van Drongelen could only turn into his own net as he tried to beat the ball off the line. And once again, on March 2nd, Johannson scored. Scored emphatically. Scored a goal that screamed “I’m ready” into the net.

15. That’s Werder’s standing in the Bundesliga currently, one spot above the relegation zone with a half season to play. Johannsson’s form over the last month indicates he’s ready to take part in ensuring top flight status, and his goal against Monchengladbach put the exclamation point on a comeback story two years in the making. It was a hell of a goal for someone who’s career seemed dead in the water, and one Werder and the United States will want to see more of soon. Good thing Aron is probably tired of waiting.