Back in May when United States coach Jürgen Klinsmann selected then 18-year-old Julian Green as part of the U.S. World Cup roster, it was one of his most controversial moves. On Tuesday, the now 19-year-old Green demonstrated why he had Klinsmann’s faith by scoring a spectacular volley as a substitute on his very first World Cup touch in America’s 2-1 loss to Belgium. After Klinsmann made the initial decision, we explained why the critics were wrong and why Green belonged at this Cup. The article is republished below.
Did Julian Green take Landon Donovan’s job? Many U.S. soccer commentators have strongly hinted that Jurgen Klinsmann chose the 18-year-old German-American prospect over the 32-year-old veteran attacker. Others have said it outright. Given the circumstances of Green’s elevation and Donovan’s ouster, the two men’s careers will now be inextricably linked. The Green vs. Donovan narrative is compelling as sports drama, so expect to hear about it all throughout the World Cup. Too bad it’s a totally phony story.
First, let’s stipulate a few facts about Donovan and Green. The former is the best player in American men’s soccer history. He’s scored 57 career U.S. goals—one for every 2.7 appearances on the national team—and his 58 total assists are 36 more than anyone else has tallied in an American shirt. The callow Green, meanwhile, has spent his short career in the German fourth division playing for Bayern Munich’s B-squad, save for three inconsequential minutes in a Champions League game for the German title-holders and one so-so appearance as a sub for the United States in a friendly against Mexico.
To some, the injustice of this decision is on par with Prince Joffrey claiming the Iron Throne and (Game of Thrones Season 1 spoiler) Ned Stark getting his head on a pike.
Here’s how former USMNT defender and current KICKTV host Jimmy Conrad put it:
Just double checking my math. 1 cap, no 1st team minutes with club team > 156 caps, 5 World Cup goals, best player in U.S. history. Got it.— Jimmy Conrad (@JimmyConrad) May 22, 2014
Making Green’s alleged usurping of Donovan’s place even more contentious is the oft-repeated rumor that there was an underhanded quid pro quo deal between Klinsmann and the Bayern player. The charge is that the German coach of the American team promised the German-American Green a spot in the 2014 squad if he opted to play for the Stars and Stripes rather than Deutschland. Klinsmann and Green both strongly deny this claim, but the existence of such a deal does not seem far-fetched.
Deal or no deal, it’s simply not accurate to describe Green as Donovan’s replacement. They can play separate positions. They can do different things. And they could both have easily played on the same team. Even if the 18-year-old Green had decided to take his talents to the Danube, Klinsmann still probably would have found a reason to cut Donovan from his World Cup squad. That decision seems to have been made largely on the basis of either personal animus, or some amorphous idea about “moving on” or “making the team his own.”
Julian Green is on the World Cup roster and Landon Donovan isn’t. But the former didn’t cause the latter. If Klinsmann didn’t have it out for Donovan, he would almost certainly have chosen to bring both men to Brazil. There are a number of other players on the roster—Chris Wondolowski comes to mind, and perhaps Mix Diskerud—who would have gotten the chop to make way for Green. Also, as previously discussed, putting Green on the 23-man roster might have been necessary to convince him to play for the Americans in the first place.
Putting Donovan’s exclusion aside, it was a good idea to select Green for this year’s World Cup. He is arguably the best American soccer prospect ever. He has a contract with one of the top clubs in the world. He has the confidence of the best manager in the world, Pep Guardiola. And he has the endorsements of some of the top players in the world in teammates Bastian Schweinsteiger and Arjen Robben.
Describing Green as an American Messi is obviously ridiculous. But it’s just as absurd to compare him to infamous U.S. bust Freddy Adu. Adu was hyped as a child—he was 14 when he signed for DC United—whereas Green is a teen phenom. At this stage in an athlete’s development, it’s much easier to predict success than it is when a player is just barely on the other side of puberty.
A more apt comparison, though still not fully correct, is to Theo Walcott. In 2006, the 17-year-old Walcott was a shock selection for the English World Cup roster. Walcott, an Arsenal player whose highest level of competition at the time was during a loan to Southampton in the English second division, didn’t play a minute in Germany. The decision to select Walcott in 2006 is viewed as one of former England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson’s greatest blunders.
That’s where the comparison goes awry. Walcott was replacing players from England’s Premier League. Green is replacing players from America’s Major League Soccer. Also, I’m guessing if U.S. Soccer knew in 2006 that it could secure the 17-year-old Walcott as an American player for his entire career if they brought him to that World Cup, surely they would have taken that deal.
Green’s pace, creativity, and finishing ability are similar to that of a young Walcott. If Green is ever able to make a run like this dizzying Walcott slalom against Liverpool in a U.S. shirt, that alone will have been worth the price of his ticket to Brazil.
Bayern Munich’s Schweinsteiger has compared Green favorably to another great player, namely himself. “He’s very quick—without the ball and with the ball,” Schweinsteiger told Sports Illustrated earlier this year. “He plays a little bit like me. I’m not as quick as him, but at the beginning of my career I was playing on the left side outside, like his position now, and would come in and shoot with the right foot. And he’s done that a lot of times.”
Robben himself has been impressed with what he has seen of Green in training sessions with Bayern’s first team. “He’s a great talent,” the Dutch winger told SI. “You can see he has potential. He’s quick, he’s got very good dribbling and can score goals.”
It’s true that Green has never accomplished anything on a senior stage. But that’s because he’s still very young (his mother was driving him to and from practice sessions as late as this past March). More significantly, it’s because his contract is owned by one of the best teams on the planet—a team that would be practically impossible for any 18-year-old to crack. While he has only played for a German fourth division side, he was dominant in that competition, scoring 15 goals in 23 matches this season.
When he has played with Bayern’s senior team in friendlies, such as against Al Kuwait and against Sudanese champions Al-Merrikh, he has scored goals. (Again, the level of competition here is admittedly vastly inferior to the level at the World Cup.)
Less sanguine American soccer commentators have described the Green selection as a disaster.
“If he goes to the World Cup as part of the [23-man roster], I think it’s one of the biggest scandals in U.S. national team history,” said MLSsoccer.com’s Simon Borg in a podcast recorded before Green was selected. “There is no way a player can go from fourth division to play on the national team at the World Cup. … I refuse to accept it.”
To Green’s critics, taking him to the World Cup is like placing a Single-A prospect on a World Series roster. In reality, it’s more like taking an inexperienced player straight to the major leagues, which is a far less out-there proposition.
The purpose of having Green on this team is to give him the experience of having gone to a World Cup, something that could be useful if he eventually does blossom into a star in Europe. Even if he doesn’t play a minute and ends up with a career as forgettable as Adu or David Regis, this will have been a gamble worth taking. The potential reward—America’s first-ever star from one of the best teams in Europe—is high. The potential risk is low. Having Green on the bench or on the field will not cause the Americans to crash out of a World Cup group of death that would be very difficult to escape no matter who Klinsmann selected. I’d like the Americans’ chances a little bit better if Landon Donovan were on the team. Just not at the expense of Julian Green.