Johnny Cardoso, USMNT’s very own Brazilian: ‘I’m representing a country my parents love’


In pure footballing terms, his story is as Brazilian as they come.

Joao Lucas de Souza Cardoso honed his skills on the streets of his home town, then on the glazed wooden slats of the futsal court. His childhood hero was Kaka. He progressed through the ranks at one of Brazil’s biggest clubs, eventually breaking into the first team as a teenager and securing a move to Europe.

It is a tale as old as time itself — one whose next chapter will be written this summer, when he represents his country at the Copa America.

In a parallel universe not so distant from our own, Cardoso is being held up as the Brazil national team’s great midfield hope — a player who looks capable of running games from deep for the next decade.

Instead, when the Copa America begins this week he will be wearing the white of the US men’s national team. That backstory is not as straightforward as it first appears.

The first clue is in the name: the 22-year-old is widely known simply as Johnny, a sobriquet bestowed upon him by his dad when he was a small child. If that hints at a certain American sensibility (Carson, Cash… Cardoso), the family history confirms it.

Cardoso’s parents moved to the US in the 1990s. They had no special links with the country and no jobs lined up, only the sense that opportunity awaited them. “They had nothing,” Cardoso tells The Athletic. “They went there in hope, in search of a new life. In total, I think they spent four or five years there.”

That was split over two separate spells. During the second, Johnny was born in Denville Township, New Jersey. Three months later, spooked by the 9/11 terror attacks and keen for a wider support network, the family decamped to Brazil permanently.

That might have been the end of it; Cardoso had US citizenship but grew up Brazilian. In 2019, however, he got a call from USMNT selectors, inviting him to an under-23 training camp. He was 17 at the time. He felt a path opening up in front of him — the kind for which his parents had once gone searching.

“When the chance came to play for the US, I didn’t think twice,” he says. “I’m representing a country that my parents love.”

Johnny Cardoso made his senior USMNT debut in 2020 (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Four years on, Cardoso is a regular in the senior squad. His impressive performances for Spanish top-flight outfit Real Betis have put him in the conversation for a berth in Gregg Berhalter’s starting XI. On the radars of some of Europe’s top clubs, too.

If Cardoso does well at the Copa America, there might also soon be a few mumbles of discontent in Brazil that such a talented player was allowed to slip through the net. Not that Cardoso is going to be trading in hypotheticals any time soon.

“I’m certain I made the right decision,” he says with a smile.

Given that he plays like a natural-born defensive midfielder — his is a rare combination of physicality, intelligence and grace — it is a surprise to learn that Cardoso took up the position only in his late teens.

In futsal, he was usually the pivot, holding the ball up in attack. After graduating to 11-a-side, he played on the wing or, more often, up front. He was good at it, too, and therefore surprised when Fabio Matias — Internacional’s under-20 coach at the time and now assistant manager at Coritiba — told him, seemingly on a whim, to move back into a deeper role in training one day.

“I was really annoyed,” laughs Cardoso. “It didn’t make any sense to me. I went straight home and called my dad. ‘Dad, Fabio made me play in midfield!’”

Cardoso Sr told his son to keep calm and speak to his coach the following morning. Matias’ explanation was… well, not much of one. “Just trust me,” he told Cardoso. “This is going to work out nicely.”

Those words proved to be prophetic. Inter won the Rio Grande do Sul under-20 championship that season. Cardoso, 17, captained the team from just in front of the back four. Remarkably, he still ended the campaign as the team’s top scorer.

“It was all really quick,” he says. “I had spent my entire youth as a striker but became a defensive midfielder in six months.”

Cardoso developed into a midfielder during his time at Internacional (Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images)

It helped that Cardoso is a studious type. “I always read the game very well, which helped me to adapt,” he explains. “It opened my eyes a bit more, made me pay attention and learn. I would watch videos of players who played in that position: Thiago Alcantara, Sergio Busquets, Rodri, Casemiro. I looked at their body position, when they would play first-time passes, how they protected the ball.

“Even today, I always watch videos of them, seeing if I can learn something. They are top, top players and that’s the level I want to be at. You have to learn from the best.”

Cardoso made his senior debut five days before his 18th birthday. Over the four seasons that followed, he made 144 appearances for Inter, establishing himself as one of the best midfielders in South America.

It was not all wine and roses, however. Brazil, with its wildly impatient fans and chairmen, can be an unforgiving place for a young footballer. Cardoso, like so many emerging talents before him, was booed by his own supporters on a few occasions.

“It was very tough at the start,” he says. “When you move up to the first team, you imagine that everything will be perfect, but there’s a level of expectation. In Brazil, the pressure is so intense. If you have seven good games and then one bad one, people want you out.

“At the beginning, I would get really down. After a match I might receive 100 messages of support and one nasty one, but that one hurt me, made me sad. You start to think, ‘Is this really what I dreamt of?’ There was one spell when the fans were really getting on my back and it was hard to deal with.”

Thankfully, guidance was at hand. Cardoso had been working with a psychologist since the age of 15; when things got difficult, he had the perfect sounding board.

“That was essential for me,” he explains. “She taught me how to deal with all the pressure. When I got booed, I had to keep a calm head and remember that no one gets to the first team without deserving to be there. I just kept that in my mind, tried to remember that everyone has ups and downs. It made me stronger. And I still work on my mind today, so that I can stay at a good level.”

When the time came to leave Inter in January, Cardoso was not short of options: Napoli, Brighton, Sporting Lisbon and Galatasaray were all sniffing around. Betis, though, were always top of the midfielder’s list.

“It was a question of feeling,” says Cardoso. “I just had this hunch that it was the right choice. I thought I would be able to adapt to the city and felt Spain would suit my style of play. I am a very technical player, which comes from futsal. I read the game well and Spanish football is very positional, very organised. I knew that it would be easier to adapt here than in the Premier League, for example.”

Cardoso celebrates scoring his first Betis goal against Athletic Club (Joaquin Corchero/Getty Images)

On the evidence of the past six months, it was a wise decision. Cardoso did not expect to find his way into Manuel Pellegrini’s side immediately, but an injury to Argentina World Cup winner Guido Rodriguez gave him the chance to make an early impression. He has been a fixture in the starting XI ever since, putting in a string of commanding, urgent displays.

“He is very organised and intelligent.” said Pellegrini in February. “He has performed well from the first minute.”

Those comments came after an excellent performance against Athletic Club. There have been many more since.

“It’s not easy, arriving in the middle of a season, but things have gone well,” Cardoso says. “I’m learning more every day here. I’m playing at a higher level and spending every day with quality players. Being around guys like Guido, William Carvalho, Marc Roca, Isco… it’s priceless.

“I think I’ve improved since arriving. And I can still get better.”

Cardoso was first called up to the senior US national team in 2020, for friendly matches against Wales and Panama. He was the first player to be called up from a league outside North America or Europe for more than two decades.

When he arrived at the training camp in Miami, there were no other players there. “I was the first to arrive and had to do a session on my own, with Gregg and the entire coaching staff watching,” he recalls. “As if I wasn’t nervous enough already!”

Cardoso’s English was not much cop then. (It has improved since but he is still taking lessons and speaks to The Athletic in Portuguese.) He was worried that there would be a language barrier — and a cultural one — between him and the other members of the squad.

Cardoso and his USMNT team-mates with the Concacaf Nations League Trophy (John Dorton/Getty Images)

“I thought they might see me as an outsider because I hadn’t grown up in the US,” he says. “But they welcomed me with such warmth, really making me feel at home. With every call-up, I feel more at ease. I’m getting to know everyone and enjoying their company. It has been really nice.”

Cardoso was disappointed to miss out on a place in Berhalter’s World Cup squad in 2022 — he watched the tournament back in Brazil — but has grown in stature in the two years since. He is looking forward to the Copa America and believes that the USMNT can give a good account of themselves on home soil.

“There are a lot of good teams in the competition but we have been improving a lot,” he says. “We’re confident in what we’re doing. When we enter a tournament it’s because we want to win it, and this is no different.”

When Cardoso was 11, he went on holiday to the US with his parents. By this stage he had a baby sister and the Cardoso clan arranged a mini nostalgia tour, heading back to New Jersey. They visited the hospital were Johnny had been born and their old house in Denville.

That trip, too, forms part of the family’s American story.

“It was really special,” says Cardoso. “My parents always felt a connection with the US and me playing for the national team has only strengthened that. We feel more and more connected to the US. It’s really cool.”

Cardoso is an engaging, bright character. He speaks with a calm maturity that belies his youth. He might have grown up Brazilian, but his commitment to the US — “my country,” he calls it — is evident.

One obvious question does still need answering, however. What if the US and Brazil cross paths at the Copa America? Wouldn’t this new American hero start to feel a little… conflicted?

“They’re two countries I have a real bond with,” Cardoso says, a smile breaking like a wave across his face. “But when the whistle blows, I will be defending my country. I will want the US to win at all costs.”

And what about his family? Will they know who to cheer for at the stadium? “Oh, they will be supporting the US,” he says. “If not, they should stay at home!”

(Top photo: John Dorton/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

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