ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Werder Bremen are only five games into the new Bundesliga season, and it has been an eye-opening start to the campaign for striker Aron Johannsson, to say the least.
After being expected to miss the season opener recovering from a hip injury that kept him out of action for nearly a year, the USMNT forward passed a fitness test in time to start the first three matches, and he contributed to both of Bremen's goals in that span. But since returning, Johannsson has endured a losing streak to begin the term, a lightning-fast managerial change, and his first red card since he was a 17-year-old pro rookie with Icelandic club Fjolnir Reykjavik back in 2009.
Johannsson was given the boot for referee abuse 10 minutes from the end of Werder Bremen's September 21 away loss to Fabian Johnson's Borussia Monchengladbach. The 25-year-old reacted to what he perceived as a missed handball offense with some salty language, but insists that referee Tobias Stieler mistook his invective aimed at the non-call as a personal attack.
A stunned Johannsson quickly tried to explain the misinterpretation, but the ref turned a deaf ear and showed him the gate.
"There's nothing you can do about it when he writes it in his book," Johannsson told MLSsoccer.com after Bremen's training session on Wednesday. "When he reached for his pocket, I was expecting to see the yellow card."
The sending off came with a ban that has seen him miss the club's last two games. This still remains a source of disbelief, as the American feels he was punished for something he didn't actually say.
"I was very surprised," he stated. "At first, they were going to give me a three-game suspension. I mean, you have guys out there breaking bones with tackles and they get three games."
As the league passed judgment on Johannsson, Werder Bremen were doing the same on manager Viktor Skripnik. The boss was axed after that 'Gladbach match, which only added to the early-season shock treatment.
"I feel kind of sad that it happened, I liked the training staff a lot," said Jóhannsson. "It's not only their fault that we lose, it's also [the players'] fault. But that's football, life goes on."
In this case, it's gone on under caretaker manager Alexander Nouri, who Johannsson is hoping will have his interim tag removed.
"I like his techniques," offered Johannsson. "For me, so far, it's been nothing but positive. Hopefully, we will do well enough that he stays."
After dropping Nouri's first game in charge, Bremen finally broke their duck with a 2-1 defeat of star-studded Wolfsburg this past weekend. To say this cooled tensions around the city would be an understatement.
"It takes a lot of pressure off," Johannsson admitted. "Now, hopefully we can play up to our standards, without panic. We have a very good squad and losing the first four games was unacceptable."
As harrowing as the start to this season has been, though, it sure beats the hell out of Johannsson's 2015-16 campaign. That began well enough, with the forward hitting twice in his first five starts after arriving from AZ Alkmaar during the summer transfer window.
But he went on the shelf with what the club initially thought was an abductor issue that would keep him out a mere matter of weeks. Eventually, doctors realized that Johannsson was suffering from nerve irritation in his right hip and he went under the knife in October.
Johannsson was supposed to return after the winter break, but he still had too much discomfort when brought back to the training pitch in January. This false start repeated a couple more times before Bremen ruled him out for the remainder of the season in March.
He still was unsure how long it would take to get back to action while his USMNT teammates were enjoying a Copa America Centenario adventure in June, and when Bremen began preseason camp in July. All in all, it was a tiresome experience from a mental standpoint.
"For me, that was the most difficult part, not knowing how long it would take," Johannsson said. "If you do your knee, they can say, 'Oh it will be six months,' and everyone knows the exact steps to take in recovery.
"With me, it was difficult to see exactly what the problem was. It would get better, I'd start training and then it would come back again, like three or four times."
Eventually, he had to try a new rehab approach. The Alabama-born, Iceland-raised Johannsson took off for Iceland during the summer, combining rest among family with a physiotherapy visits. The dual-national was thrilled at his other homeland's stirring Euro 2016 run, and by the time that was over, he was ready to return to Bremen.
"Together, with the rest and their treatment, it got better," said Johannsson, almost reliving the relief of that breakthrough.
Now, he must come back from the suspension to regain his Bremen starting place and play his way back into the US national team set-up. Jurgen Klinsmann's strike pool has expanded and improved greatly while Johannsson has been away, but you will not hear him complaining over the heightened level of competition.
"It's definitely a good thing," he said. "We want the best players. When there's more good players for the team, everyone gets better. I want to play with and against the best guys."
Klinsmann has certainly not forgotten Johannsson, who last appeared in red, white and blue a few weeks before injuring his hip.
"I spoke to him throughout the injury, he helped a lot," Johannsson said of Klinsmann. "He sent me to Munich to a clinic for treatment. Now it's just up to me to play good football. If I'm good enough, they will bring me back into the team."
The USMNT is not the only American endeavor on Johannsson's mind. He regularly keeps up with MLS happenings and has publicly stated a desire to play in America while still in his prime.
"They show the [MLS] games on Eurosport, so I'm watching a lot," he said. "I saw the game when Jordan [Morris] scored two against the Galaxy. Especially with teams like Seattle and Portland, it's definitely growing every year. It's nice to see the fans go out to the game and support soccer.
"In coming years, I think it's going to get better and better and bigger and bigger. It's exciting. Like I said, I want to play in MLS, but it has to be right for me and right for MLS. Right now, I'm enjoying my life in Europe and we'll see about the future."