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SSFC Spotlight: Johnny Cardoso has big opportunity at USMNT winter camp

The midfielder is thriving for Internacional.

Panama v USMNT Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The United States Men’s National Team opens the traditional winter camp in Carson, California, promising opportunities for developing and under-the-radar members of the pool. While a showcase for out-of-season domestic talents, the USMNT roster tends to include a few intriguing players based abroad. Taking part in this year’s edition is Johnny Cardoso, a 20-year-old midfielder with Internacional in Brazil. Once cited as a potential breakthrough member of Gregg Berhalter’s squad, he is completing a strong season that could lead to a transfer to Europe.

João Lucas de Souza Cardoso was born in suburban Denville, New Jersey and moved to Criciuma, Brazil at three months old. “It all started with my parents coming to the United States,” he said in 2020. “I was born at the time of the 9/11 attacks. So, shortly thereafter, I returned to Brazil with my family, which is where I grew up, but I always had that American taste. I’ve always been curious to come back.”

The dual-national – who “began his career in futsal” – played in the Avaí and Criciúma youth set-ups, while training at a school in Santa Catarina. Sporting Club Internacional scouted him at a tournament and added him to the academy. Johnny won three consecutive Rio Grande do Sul state championships and the Nike Cup in 2016, the captain and leading scorer for the under-20 squad. The Port Alegre club initially deployed him as a striker and attacking midfielder before switching to deep-lying playmaker due to his “control of the game, tackling, [and] pressure.” According to ESPN, he was “not one of the players local media had considered among the most likely future stars,” but the club renewed his contract through July of 2022.

At 17 years old, Johnny made his debut in September of 2019, playing 15 minutes in a 3-1 victory over Atlético Mineiro. “My debut was very good,” he told American Soccer Now. “It was a sensational experience that I think every player wants, to be on the professional team.”

The rest of the season was spent training with the reserves, to “gain rhythm.” In 2020, he began receiving more playing time under manager Eduardo Coudet, making 17 combined league and cup appearances as Internacional finished second in the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A. Johnny featured in three Copa Libertadores matches, registering the match-winning assist to defeat América de Cali by a 4-3 margin and ultimately advance out of Group E.

The club extended his now-professional contract through the end of 2022, which includes a salary increase and 60 million euro release clause. “Another dream and goal being fulfilled, very happy to renew the contract,” he expressed to the club’s official website. “May I bring joy and titles to the Colorado fans. It’s been a year of a lot of learning, of opportunities, and I’m trying to make the best use of it.”

This season, after a brief adjustment period during which the manager refused to “throw him to the lions,” Johnny is considered “an important player for the future” of the club, which is bouncing around the middle of the table and currently at 12th place. He has made 33 appearances and scored two goals. The first came against Pelotas in the Campeonato Gaúcho state competition, while the second was a nifty header in a Copa do Brasil fixture with Vitória.

As Brazil is considered the world’s deepest talent market, his time in the country may be drawing to a close. Over the summer, he reportedly received offers from “several European clubs,” with Spain “the most likely destination.” Journalist Lucas Collar claimed there was a bid of six million euros from the unnamed entity. There was also said to be interest from Major League Soccer, as the player is an intriguing roster addition due to his domestic status. However, executive director of football Paulo Bracks dismissed these stories as “irresponsible news,” “a great irresponsibility,” and “a web of lies.” While Internacional deals with “a delicate financial situation,” selling a top young prospect on a short-term contract may become more appealing.

At the international level, Johnny is eligible to represent the United States and Brazil, joining the former program “without any doubt.” He accepted an initial call-up to the U-23 squad in October of 2019 and played in all four matches during the doomed qualification campaign for the Tokyo Olympic Games. His senior debut came in November of 2020, earning two caps against Wales and Panama. Gregg Berhalter invited him to the annual winter camp in California, one of three international players on the roster.

“He’s a great person, very good player,” the USMNT manager said in 2020, after referring to him as a player that fans should monitor. “You can tell that he plays in Brazil; he’s a street-smart player. Any type of physical battle, no matter who he’s going against, he can deal with, no matter what his size is. He’s quick on the ball. You can tell he’s in an environment where they value the ball, where you have to take care of the ball, and where you have to play quickly.”

Johnny plays as a “defensive midfielder with attacking tendencies” (known as a “steering wheel”) and is capable of filling all three traditional central roles. According to OneGoal, he is “confident with the ball at his feet” and “sprays the ball around the pitch” with high accuracy, which makes him an ideal fit for a deeper role in Berhalter’s formation. While not “blessed with pace,” the 20-year-old is “quick on the turn, to make a pass, [and] to move into a position to receive.” Internacional pushed him to improve on the defensive side of the ball, which should be on display during training camp, complementing judicious movement and shrewd decision making that limits mistakes.

“I am open to any position [in the midfield],” he shared last year. “I work for opportunity. Wherever I have the opportunity, I will try to do my best.”

The friendly against Bosnia is an opportunity for Johnny to become a more established member of the national team. Behind Tyler Adams, the defensive midfielder depth chart is far from settled, with the Brazilian dual-national possessing the necessary skills to fill the role. Winter camp is never enough to make a player’s career, but there is the potential to gain more traction and receive future call-ups for meaningful matches, like January’s World Cup qualifiers.