Wednesday marks six years since the United States men’s national team’s last game at a World Cup, a loss to Belgium in the round of 16 in Brazil, and six years since its last World Cup goal, scored in extra time of that match by a 19-year-old Julian Green.
If you haven’t thought much about Green lately, you’re not alone. The former Bayern Munich attacking prospect, who then-U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann picked to his 23-man roster ahead of Landon Donovan in 2014, has been toiling away in the relative obscurity of the German second tier for the last three seasons. He’s reinvented himself as a box-to-box central midfielder. And he’s desperate to return to the USMNT, for which he hasn’t played in the almost two years since Gregg Berhalter took over the beleaguered program.
“I’m a better player than I was six years ago in the World Cup,” Green, who turned 25 last month, told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “I hope I get my chance to show the coach what I can do, that I can help the team. That’s my biggest goal.”
With the U.S. men hoping simply to return to the World Cup after missing out on Russia 2018, it’s easy to forget the hype that surrounded Green’s first U.S. appearance. Days after the Florida-born, Munich-raised dual national committed his international future to the Stars and Stripes, a dedicated ESPN camera followed him from the bench, to the sideline for warmups, and onto the the field in the second half of a pre-Cup tuneup against blood rival Mexico. The debut of another blue chip teenager, Christian Pulisic, less than two years later flew largely under the radar by comparison.
Unlike Pulisic, Green struggled for minutes in the Bundesliga following his goal-scoring cameo in Brazil. He played in just five top-flight games while on loan to Hamburg in 2014-15 and none at all the following season after returning to Bayern.
Another unsuccessful move, this time to Stuttgart, followed. But Green’s trajectory began to change in 2017, when he landed at fellow second-division side Greuther Furth and immediately walked into the starting lineup, where he’s remained ever since. The club sat last in the 2. Bundesliga at the time.
“How I grew up with Bayern, we always had the ball,” Green said. “The second league is totally different from the Bundesliga. We didn’t have a lot of possession. We had to fight.”
Green was forced to become more defensively responsible. In the final match of the 2017-18 campaign, he scored the goal that kept Furth from being relegated to the third tier. Green was recalled by interim-U.S. manager Dave Sarachan that spring and stayed with the national team the rest of the year. He scored in a 1-1 tie at eventual World Cup champion France, made a game-changing impact off the bench in a 1-0 win over Mexico and started high-profile friendly losses to Colombia and England.
But it wasn’t until Stefan Leitl became Furth’s manager midway through the following season that Green’s game began to take off. Leitl introduced a possession-based system and moved Green from forward back into the heart of the midfield, the same “No. 8” role he’d manned — and loved — during his years in Bayern’s youth teams.
Still, Green didn’t crack Berhalter’s 40-man provisional roster for last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. The year ended without him playing a minute for the U.S., and with MLS midfielders Sebastian Lletget and Cristian Roldan firmly ahead of Green on the coach’s depth chart.
Neither has cemented his role, though. Lletget has excelled for the U.S. when healthy but has been limited by injuries. Roldan has had ups and downs. Berhalter insisted in January that his staff has also been tracking Green, who drew interest from several MLS teams before recently signing a new two-year contract with Furth.
“We’ve been monitoring him, we’ve been in touch with his representatives, and for Julian, he’s been part of the program,” said Berhalter, who played in the 2. Bundesliga during most of his own USMNT career. “He’s playing at a high level and for us, it’s how he fits into our group.”
Watching from afar, Green thinks he fits like a glove. Berhalter’s system is also based on keeping possession, at which Green excels. “I think that’s one of my best qualities, that I don’t lose the ball,” Green said.
He’s matured off the field, too, emerging as a leader with his club. “I’m not old, but I’m not young anymore,” Green said. “I’m now one of these guys who has a little bit more experience.”
That experience could come in handy whenever the global coronavirus pandemic finally abates to the point that qualifying games for Qatar 2022 can begin. It’s something Berhalter’s talented but young side has in short supply; the only remaining U.S. regulars who have played in a World Cup are 30-something veterans Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley and Green’s two closest friends on the squad, John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin.
Not that Green spends too much time thinking about 2014. “I’m proud of that of course — not every player can say he scored in the World Cup,” he said. “It was a dream for me. But on the other hand, I want it to happen again.”
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