“There’s no better moment than that.”
Julian Green is talking about a goal. No, not that goal; not the one that he scored nearly four years ago for the U.S. against Belgium at the 2014 World Cup. Rather, he’s speaking about the tally he recorded two weeks ago for club side Greuther Furth on the last day of the 2. Bundesliga season. The goal was enough for Furth to secure a 1-1 draw against FC Heidenheim, a result that allowed the Shamrocks to maintain their second division status for another season.
The goal epitomized survival not just for Furth but for Green as well. Before the current campaign, Green had been meandering in the soccer wilderness, unable to build the kind of career foundation that comes with first-team minutes. This season he made a breakthrough, making 24 appearances with Furth and scoring three goals. Green admitted he needed to be more consistent with his finishing, but now he has come up big in a pressure-packed moment that, when combined with consistent playing time, could generate some precious momentum in a career that at times has been starved of it.
“I felt that I made a lot of steps forward in my personal game,” said Green via telephone. “So it was a good season for me and in the end we were not relegated, so it was perfect. And it’s always nice to score goals, especially in a game like that.”
Green’s exploits at the club level have already gotten him another look with the U.S. men’s national team, and he’s in contention to see the field Monday against Bolivia in Chester, Pennsylvania. If he plays, it will mark the first time he has logged minutes in a U.S. shirt since late 2016.
“It’s nice to be back,” he said. “I said it a couple of months ago, my goal is to be back with the U.S. team soon, and now I’m very happy.”
Green is part of a long line of U.S. players who have been saturated with high expectations from the moment they first started getting called up to U.S. youth teams. Here was a player with considerable attacking skill, and he had a Bayern Munich pedigree, to boot. He even managed to log some minutes in the UEFA Champions League. His inclusion in the World Cup squad, and his aforementioned strike in Brazil, put the hype machine into overdrive.
Neither the path nor the expectations were sustainable. At the time, Green was in the awkward position of having logged more first-team minutes with the U.S. than he had with his club. The bulk of his professional experience consisted mostly of games in Germany’s fourth tier. So instead of making a steady ascent, Green’s career nosedived.
Cracking Bayern’s star-studded lineup was always going to be a long shot, so Green was lent out to Hamburg for the 2014-15 season. The move proved to be disastrous as Green played just five matches (111 minutes total) on a team that flirted with relegation for the entirety of the campaign. He didn’t endear himself to the Hamburg hierarchy, either, at one point getting sent down to the club’s reserve team.
When the loan expired, he returned to Munich and was confined to the club’s reserve team in the fourth tier, Regionalliga Bayern. Midway through the 2016-17 campaign, he finally secured a transfer to Stuttgart, who at the time were playing in the 2. Bundesliga. He managed 10 appearances that season; better, but still not enough to kick-start his career.
Green’s stint with Furth has him on an upward trajectory again. Asked to identify the part of his game he improved the most, Green is stumped. The reality is that his entire game benefited.
“I think if you play every weekend, you can feel it, you’re just getting better and you feel more comfortable on the field, and you just have a good feeling,” Green said. “It was my first season that it was like this. I never had that before, and I think it was a very important season for me. Now I feel that I’m a different kind of player, my game changed just a little bit. I feel better now.”
One critical aspect that changed for Green was his position on the field. He has been mostly stationed out on the wing during his career, which made sense, given his slight frame and ability off the dribble. There have been moments when he’s been played as a forward, however. Former Bayern manager Carlo Ancelotti insisted that was where he thought Green’s future lay.
“[Green] has the typical skill set of a center-forward; he’s very good without the ball, and he is so good at finding space and moving behind the defensive line. And he has quality on the ball, too,” Ancelotti told ESPN FC at the time of Green’s move to Stuttgart.
The Tampa native isn’t one to argue, especially given that he gets on the ball more when he’s stationed centrally. “I think something is there if [Ancelotti] says that,” he said. “I feel very comfortable there.”
Green was given that opportunity with Greuther Furth. He spent much of the 2017-18 season playing as a second striker, but, in the last game against Heidenheim, he played even closer to goal, and the move paid off.
In many ways, Green scans like a cautionary tale of what can happen if too much adulation is handed to a player too early in his career. It’s a line of thinking that puzzles Green; after all, it’s not as if he was going to say no to the opportunity of going to a World Cup.
“I scored a goal, and it was a great experience for me,” he said of the World Cup. “There was nothing [that happened] too quickly.”
There were some tough lessons along the way, however, and, now that he’s come out on the other side, Green can appreciate how the tough moments steeled him and put him in position to enjoy the good times when they arrived.
“Everything made me stronger, I think,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot in the last couple of years. I learned how it is to have a bad time also, so I think that’s important for every player. You can ask every top player and they have to go through tough times, and I did that, and now I feel good. I played all the time, and I’m looking forward to the future.”
For Green, it’s one that is now looking a bit brighter, too.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.