Bjorn Maars Johnsen in action for Litex Lovech, July 2015
Courtesy of Litex Lovech

American Exports: From North Carolina to Bulgaria, Norwegian-American Bjorn Maars Johnsen carves his own path

AMSTERDAM – Like several Americans before him, 23-year-old American target man Björn Maars Johnsen is attempting to take an unusual route to success. 

After plenty of time toiling in lower divisions across Europe, Johnsen’s odd path seems to be paying off, with the young forward currently tied for the scoring lead with six goals across all competitions for third-place Bulgarian side Litex Lovech.

He's come a long way from North Carolina high school and club ball, which was actually interrupted by a year going to school and playing for junior teams in Norway. That year abroad was when Johnsen first saw the often-winding path to professional soccer.

"My father's from Norway, so I ended going for a year when I was 16," Johnsen told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Lovech. "I stayed with my aunt and uncle, went to high school my junior year and played for the junior team of Lyn."

After graduation in North Carolina, Johnsen had a choice. He had several good scholarship offers to play college soccer, but that time spent in Norway carried weight.

"I know it's important to go to school, but I had already done well in Norway and everyone knew who I was," he said. "I had contacts for tryouts at big clubs there."

Johnsen did well enough at various stops until reaching third flight Tonsberg, where he scored three times in 10 games back in 2011. He was progressing, but not like he felt he should. Some of it was his fault, some was not.

"I was making dumb mistakes as a kid, hanging out with the wrong people, doing dumb things," recalled Johnsen. "I bounced around because each team had a different position for me. I played right wing, I played forward, I even played midfield – it was weird for me.

"I was thinking I should try something else and get out of here. I made a video and put it on YouTube, searched the internet for agents, just used Google."

Those efforts got him looks in third-tier France and Spain, but while he found clubs to join, the Spanish recession meant there was virtually no pay.

"My parents helped me with that," he said. "They really supported me and I just played my way through it." 

He fared well enough to draw attention from Portuguese second division club Atlético CP, which is where his burgeoning success story really took off. 

"I wasn't really sure because I was doing well in Spain," said Johnsen with a chuckle. "But the pay was better and my parents were like 'You need to take that!'

"You're almost not young anymore, you know? You're at the time you need to do something with it or quit. I took the opportunity well."

Indeed he did. Over the first half of last season, Johnsen led Atlético CP with 14 goals and added two more in cup play, drawing plenty of media attention.

"No one really knew who I was," Johnsen said of his sudden rise. "It wasn't normal that an American-Norwegian player was playing well [in Portugal], that's why I got so much publicity. I found more confidence in myself." 

All the goals had Johnsen on the verge of making a move to Portuguese giants Benfica last winter. He even met with the club president. All the choices and hard work were set to pay off until Atlético suddenly asked for a larger fee with a sell-on percentage. The sale broke down and he went into a small slump.

"It was really hard for me to focus after that," admitted Johnsen. "I didn't play so well for three weeks. I was all nervous and it made me crazy. It was my first time doing all that stuff. Honestly, I probably handled it wrong."

He then got his head straight in time for the Bulgarian transfer market, which doesn't close until mid-February. Atlético's plan to squeeze Benfica didn't work, but they still needed money and Johnsen was their biggest market item. 

Atlético eventually settled for less than the original agreement with Benfica and Johnsen got the escape route necessary to continue his story. Though he may find humor in being a Yank living in a slight air of Cold War remnants that comes with central Bulgarian addresses, he's quickly grown to feel a part of the team and the town.

"It's an Eastern Bloc country, I can tell you that," he laughed of his off-the-field time warp. "It certainly reminds you of the Soviet Union. But the people are really nice, it's not bad. It's different, coming from America."

On the field, Johnsen struck six times in 10 postseason playoff matches to lead Litex to a Europa League berth as a spring sneak preview. After a slow start this season, he has four goals in the last six games to go with his first pair of Europa League goals.  

"I settled down here and have played well," said Johnsen. "People are starting to notice again. It's helping me to get my name out there, so maybe I can go play somewhere nice that will help me get on the world stage, to play with the national team. 

"This is what matters to me; playing in big clubs and in big tournaments like the Gold Cup or the [European Championships]."

And there lies the potential rub for US national team fans: Johnsen is eligible to play for Norway and is thus far unaffiliated with either program. He is open to both and quite up for grabs, but only one party has made contact.

"The Norwegian selection? Yes," said Johnsen. "They've also considered me for the national team recently. America? No, I haven't heard anything, which is kind of disappointing. 

"But it's normal – I'm playing in Bulgaria," he laughed. "If I was playing in Germany, [Jurgen] Klinsmann would call me."

As for reaching the bigger club that will get him that attention, MLSsoccer.com has learned that Johnsen is being scouted by clubs in the 2. Bundesliga, Greece, the Netherlands and Russia. 

Don't expect another mid-season move, though. He happily expects to fight for his first championship medal since his youth soccer days until the end of the season. That doesn't mean Johnsen isn't confident of making a big jump or that Litex won't listen to enticing offers.

"It's got to be the right price," he said. "Litex won't just sell me. I know how they negotiate, my contract took days. We're trying to be champions of Bulgaria. It depends on numbers [for the transfer fee] and who it is.

"I've progressed enough to know I can do well in the first division anywhere," declared Johnsen. "I just need to be in the right fit. It's not all about making it to the big time, you have to be able to show people who you are."

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