Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SALVADOR, Brazil — Julian Green should not have been there. He was not ready and there were more deserving and capable players ahead of him.
That was the argument many observers made in late May when Green was named to the U.S. Men’s National Team roster headed to Brazil for the World Cup. They thought he would not be able to deliver on soccer’s biggest stage and was essentially wasting a roster spot because he was 19 years old, still growing physically, and finding his feet as a professional.
They were wrong.
Green silenced his growing contingent of critics and showed why U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and Bayern Munich are so high on him, coming off the bench to deliver a clutch goal that gave the Americans newfound life in their Round of 16 match against Belgium on Tuesday. Green entered the game at the start of the second half of extra time with the U.S. down, 2-0. Two minutes later he delivered an impressive goal with his first touch of the match to become the youngest player to score in a World Cup since an 18-year-old Leo Messi did so in 2006.
It was a cool and composed finish from a teenage winger making his World Cup debut – even if he didn’t catch all of the ball – and a sign that demonstrated that the U.S.’s future might indeed be bright.
“We knew that he was ready,” said Klinsmann after the 2-1 loss at Arena Fonte Nova that eliminated the Americans from the World Cup. “I told him before the game watch (right back Toby Alderweireld), read him, have a specific eye on him and he knew that he might get this chance today. It was just phenomenal how he came in and scored that goal and gets us back now and then we just need a little bit more luck to get the second one and that was not the case. It’s fun to watch that kid grow.”
Aside from the 107th-minute strike that came following a gorgeous pass from Michael Bradley, Green showed other facets of his game and was not overwhelmed by the pressure, emotions and nerves that were present in his first World Cup game. He went at Alderweireld and tried some crafty stepovers to keep the Belgian defender guessing.
Not all of Green’s moves and decisions came off successfully, but more often than not he took good touches on the ball and looked like he belonged. That was not the case in his first couple of appearances for the U.S., but it was on Tuesday when the stakes were higher and the Americans needed a spark.
“It was a very good pass,” said Green. “I thought that if I hit it, I can score it. I hit it, I score and then it was an open game. I didn’t (catch it full). I hit it not perfect, but I think that was the point why it goes in.”
Green’s tally – the first of his brief international career – gave the Americans a much-needed jolt of energy. They pushed forward with confidence from there and would have found an equalizer if not for a handful of key plays from Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
The U.S. was left disappointed, drained and eliminated from the tournament when the final whistle blew after 120 minutes, but the experience that Klinsmann provided Green by including the teenage prodigy in his World Cup plans was something that could now be looked at more positively – even by their sternest critics.
“I’m 19-years-old and all the experience from the World Cup is very important for me,” said Green. “I have it now in my head and now it’s important. It’s just the experience to be in a World Cup team and play in a World Cup.”
That experience should come in handy when Green returns to Bayern Munich to prepare for the upcoming season, and also when he suits up for the U.S. again. There is no shortage of competitions for Green to partake in before the next World Cup – the 2015 Gold Cup, the 2016 Olympics and Copa America Centennial, and more – and he is excited about what lies ahead.
“I’m really looking forward to playing with this team, but I have to give my best on the field to show everybody how good I am,” said Green.
That process started on Tuesday night.