Julian Green is both USMNT enigma and 'just a normal guy'

PHILADELPHIA — Julian Green has been here before. Not here, in this peaceful corner of a swank downtown Philly hotel. But here, with a reporter opposite him, in other hotel lobbies; in locker rooms and at podiums; outside training pitches and stadiums; in hallways, or elsewhere.

And over the past four years, never – not a single time – has an American interviewer declined to mention 2014. Not once has that goal not been a topic of conversation.

“I don’t think so,” Green says with a laugh. “I don’t think so.”

Then again, how could it possibly be ignored? It is, in so many ways, a preposterous story. The only U.S. men’s national team World Cup goal between June 22, 2014 and November of 2022 was scored by a teenager who had never before played a competitive game for his country; and by a kid who has scored just seven goals in the 1,423 days since. Those two realities simply don’t line up.

So Green understands. He really does. “It’s not weird,” he says of the persistent focus on a previous chapter. “It’s normal.”

But then he arrives at a message he’s sent before, one he’ll send again, and one that’s clearly important to him. “It’s the past,” he says of 2014, and of Green 107′. “Soccer is always about now. … A lot of people here, in the United States, they like to talk about the past. You have to look in the future. That’s how it is. That’s how I am.”

Julian Green scored his first international goal for the United States as a 19-year-old in the World Cup Round of 16 against Belgium in 2014. (Getty)
Julian Green scored his first international goal for the United States as a 19-year-old in the World Cup Round of 16 against Belgium in 2014. (Getty)

Green doesn’t necessarily hate talking about the past. He’s willing to. He’s done it, and will do it again. But he clearly doesn’t like doing it. He’s reticent. He speaks in generalities. He is often a man of few words; he’s especially so when the subject is something that has come and gone.

Which is why, when I ask him to put himself in my shoes, and to tell me the first question that a reporter absolutely must ask Julian Green, he responds with a pause for thought. And then … “How do you feel?”

He even answers his own question: “I feel good.” And then he explains: “That’s the most important thing. Because it’s about what’s now.”

Green is feeling good right now because he is partaking in his first national team camp since 2016. But all any American fan wants to know is why he hasn’t been here more often. They want to know why The Next Big Thing hasn’t grown in stature; why he isn’t the soccer savior the American hype machine promised.

They’ve labeled him a mystery, and a failure – or at least a disappointment. They will occasionally talk about him as if his career is over. When he was named to the U.S. roster for Monday’s friendly against Bolivia, a few jokingly feigned shock that he was still alive.

And yet he is 22. Only 22, to some. He doesn’t feel a day younger or older than he is, but many fans are stunned to see that number. I mention this to Green, and his face lights up, the brightest it’s been during a 15-minute interview.

“Yeaaaaah,” he says. “That’s true. Sometimes if I read some comments or something, [it’s like] they think I’m already 28.”

That’s one of a few American soccer fan oddities with which Green seems to have come to terms. Outside of national team duty, he visits the States just once a year, but seems aware of public opinion. “American people are very critical,” he notes, before clarifying: “That’s nice. I like that.”

One thing he doesn’t like is the “spotlight.” He lands on the word after a few seconds of searching, and after describing himself as “just a normal guy … a quiet guy.” And it brings us back to 2014, when the spotlight shone as bright as ever on fleeting success, then continued to shine as that success dried up. Green has refuted the idea that the accompanying pressure was overbearing and inhibitive. We’ll never know if it had an effect.

At the very least, though, he has accepted that those expectations, and reactions when they’re not met, are par for the course.

“It’s going fast in this way, and fast in the other way,” he says of wild swings in athlete approval ratings. “I could feel that at the World Cup. I scored one goal, and everybody was like, Whoa, Wow. A couple months later, everything is like s—.”

Two words there are striking: “One goal.” Just a single sweep of the right boot. Just one lone shot sliced past Thibaut Courtois. Without it, so much of the Julian Green narrative would be different.

Julian Green himself wouldn’t be. He’d still be the same early-20s American attacker, not quite gifted or physically mature enough to cut it at Bayern Munich, trying to find his way in Germany. After four competitive appearances at Bayern, an ill-fated loan to Hamburg and a permanent transfer to Stuttgart, he went on loan to Greuther Furth. At 22 – an age at which some of his 2014 World Cup teammates were still in college – he was a starting 11 regular for the first time in his still-young career. He scored a massive goal to save the club from relegation. With a year left at his parent club, Stuttgart, he doesn’t know what the future holds. But he feels he’s improving, growing more comfortable by the week. And he’s certainly not the only 22-year-old in that position.

To Americans, he remains an enigma – because of his rapid rise, because of back-to-back USMNT goals in 2016, and because there hasn’t been much to speak of in between.

To anybody who could erase those five Brazilian seconds from their memory, though, he would be intensely ordinary. He is making strides, just like all his peers. He is a better player now than he was two years ago, just as he was a better player two years ago than two years before that. In other words, he’s “just a normal guy.”

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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