Julian Green’s USMNT plan: ‘Keep kicking butt’ until he gets another call

Julian Green’s career began almost perfectly. Just weeks after his 19th birthday, he checked two huge items off of his career bucket list: (1) sign with Bayern Munich and (2) score in a World Cup.

Green committed to playing for the United States over Germany in the spring of 2014 and was quickly selected for the USMNT’s World Cup squad in somewhat controversial fashion — manager Jurgen Klinsmann chose him on the wing but didn’t choose legendary 32-year-old forward Landon Donovan. But Green did his best to justify the decision, scoring and creating two chances in a 16-minute, round-of-16 cameo against Belgium.

He kept producing for the national team, too, even as its fortunes flagged — he scythed a wicked ball past France’s Hugo Lloris, for instance, in a 2018 friendly. In 15 matches and 748 minutes with the national team, he has scored four goals on 25 shots, created eight chances and logged 39 ball recoveries while playing central midfield, left-midfield, left winger, attacking midfield and center-forward.

Since 2014, only four other players have averaged at least 0.5 goals and 1 chance created per 90 minutes for the U.S. team (minimum 500 minutes): Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Christian Pulisic and Jordan Morris. That’s good company, and Green put his production together without a clear position or role.

Now with Greuther Fürth, he’s not only a full-time midfielder — a potential position of need for the U.S. — but he’s also perhaps the best midfielder in the entire German second division.

“In all the youth teams, I played in the midfield,” Green said, “but also sometimes on the wing and sometimes as a striker. I’ve not ever had a real position. And at Bayern I played as a striker, as a winger, and there really wasn’t a position for me. But then I came to Fürth and started playing in the middle, and I think that was a very good decision. That’s my favorite and best position. With [Fürth manager Stefan Leitl, himself a former Bayern prospect-turned-second division star] our game also changed — we have the ball a lot, we want to dominate the game, and that’s what’s good for me.”

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Despite a solid showing at the 2014 World Cup, the Klinsmann era faded pretty quickly. The USMNT finished only fourth in the 2015 Gold Cup and the 2016 Copa America, and Klinsmann was fired after a 2-1 loss to Mexico and a 4-0 pounding against Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying.

All the while, Green was struggling to find his place in club soccer. He scored 25 goals for Bayern’s junior team, but only once for the senior team, and both a 2014 loan to Hamburg and a 2016 transfer to VfB Stuttgart failed to bear much fruit. He was loaned, and then sold, to Fürth.

Each of Green’s managers had seemingly viewed him as something slightly different. He said Bayern’s Carlo Ancelotti envisioned him as a striker (Green netted a hat trick in a U.S. exhibition against Inter Milan in 2016). Klinsmann deployed him primarily on the left wing, though U.S. interim manager Dave Sarachan played him just about everywhere in 2018.

“For Julian, I felt he could play a variety of roles in the attacking third,” Sarachan said. “We saw him as sort of a guy who could play in one of four roles — he could play underneath the No. 9 [center-forward], in the No. 10 [attacking midfield] role, he could play on the right and the left in what you’d call a 7 or 11 role [wings], and he could play in sort of the No. 8 role [box-to-box midfield]. So, 8, 10, 7 or 11 — he’s got qualities that can create chances.”

The downside of being a jack of all trades, however, is that you risk being seen as a master of none. As Green was attempting to get his footing in Fürth, he lost his spot with the national team, a symbol of a divisive manager and failed era. He hasn’t made an appearance since manager Gregg Berhalter was appointed in December 2018.

Off the radar at Fürth, he has found himself again. Let’s do some whittling.

Of the 442 players who have played at least once in the 2. Bundesliga this season, 73 have logged at least two assists.

Of those 73, 17 have also recorded at least 75 ball recoveries.

Of those 17, eight have won more than 50% of their duels.

Of those eight, only Green has also scored at least five goals.

It’s admittedly difficult to properly measure midfield play with statistics, as a midfielder can be asked to do a little of everything. But passing well, snatching up loose balls, winning one-on-ones and scoring seems to be a sign that you’re pretty good at your job, and Green has been better at this combination than anyone. The graders at WhoScored.com have noticed his play as well — he’s in their 2. Bundesliga’s Best XI.

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Matteo Bonetti explains why Juve will certainly use their buy-out option for Weston McKennie.

Fürth is, in itself, a fascinating story. In their own sort of Moneyball fashion, the Kleeblatter (“Cloverleaves”) have compiled a young roster — of the 20 players to see the field this year, 15 are 25 or younger — full of former big-club prospects from Bayern, Wolfsburg, Borussia Mönchengladbach, etc. They play an almost recklessly optimistic style, relying on both full-backs and wide midfielders to push upfield and create numbers advantages in attack, while midfielders from the other side can flood the box. Green has scored from close range in back-to-back matches.

They attempt more shots per possession than anyone in the league (they’re also sixth in average xG per shot), and because they’ve got players upfield, they’re also in prime pressing position: they’re fourth in the league in starting 8.7 possessions per game in the attacking third. On paper, they are stylistically similar to teams like the Bundesliga’s Borussia Dortmund, Portugal’s league-leading Sporting CP, Ligue 1’s Monaco or Major League Soccer’s LAFC.

This approach suits Green perfectly.

“I think my style of playing just fits in this team and in our group,” he said. “That’s always important. If our coach would like to play just long balls and make counterattacks, maybe I wouldn’t be the perfect player for that. But we want the ball, we want to play between the lines and go forward.”

“He’s got a real fluid comfort level receiving balls, [even] under pressure,” Sarachan said. “At the highest levels, as you move along, there’s less time and space and more pressure, but he’s got good technical speed and a willingness to show up in tough spots.”

“Our coach always says the middle of the team is the heart of the team,” Green said. “If the midfield is working well, most of the time the games are going well.”

And Green is at the heart of it. His primary jobs have been (a) to work with left-back David Raum in advancing the ball from level to level and (b) to serve as a set-piece whiz. He’s on pace for 11 goals and 45 chances created this season after averaging four and 31, respectively, the last two years. He’s Fürth’s primary corner-taker, and on free kicks he’s capable of nastiness like this:

Fürth is in a ferocious battle to attain promotion to the Bundesliga for what would be only the second time. They briefly reached first place in the 2. Bundesliga in December, and beat top-division Hoffenheim in Germany’s DFB-Pokal as well. (Hoffenheim responded by arranging to pluck Raum from Fürth this summer.) They’ve leaked some points in January, however, winning just one of their last four matches to fall to fourth place, one point off of promotion pace. There’s still quite a bit of work to be done.

It was a big deal that Green chose the United States

U.S. soccer fans have been a bit spoiled of late. The country suddenly boasts a ferocious collection of exciting young talent on many of Europe’s best clubs — Chelsea (Christian Pulisic), Barcelona (Sergino Dest), Juventus (Weston McKennie), Borussia Dortmund (Gio Reyna), RB Leipzig (Tyler Adams), Manchester City (Zack Steffen), Bayern (Chris Richards) — plus solid second-tier or mid-tier clubs like Wolves (Owen Otasowie), Newcastle United (DeAndre Yedlin), Lille (Tim Weah), Werder Bremen (Josh Sargent), Valencia (Yunus Musah, if he officially ends up choosing to represent the U.S.), Salzburg (Brenden Aaronson), Leicester City (Chituru Odunze), Schalke (Matthew Hoppe), Borussia Mönchengladbach (Joe Scally), etc.

The 2014 squad was not devoid of a European presence — Michael Bradley had just left Roma, for instance, and Fabian Johnson was about to join Borussia Monchengladbach — but the fact that Green was already with Bayern when Klinsmann selected him was intriguing. So was the fact that, as a dual national, he chose the United States at all.

“I talked with [then-Bayern manager] Pep Guardiola about it and asked him what he thinks,” Green said about the decision. “He told me you have to hear from your heart and what your heart is saying. I remember my first camp was in Germany, actually, and after two minutes in this camp, I knew I wanted to play for America.

“I remember Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, they were all so nice to me, and I knew exactly that I wanted to play for this country. It was an easy decision in the end.”

Something you might have forgotten: he’s only 25

Granted, that’s suddenly old by USMNT standards, as most of the major-club players listed above are 22 or younger. Many are cutting their teeth in the Bundesliga, while Pulisic, McKennie, Steffen and others spent developmental time there as well.

Germany’s prevalence in youth development isn’t a surprise to Green. “I can just speak for myself, but Germany’s a pretty good place for young players,” he said. “To play here, you get nothing for free. You have to show your quality in training on the pitch, and [if you earn it] you get the chances. So all the young Americans who are playing right now in Germany, they deserve it.”

Still, maturity tends to matter as far as World Cup success is concerned — the more peak-age talent you’ve got on the roster, the better your team tends to fare. Players like Steffen, Brooks, Yedlin, attacker Jordan Morris, midfielder Paul Arriola and defender Matt Miazga could be heavily involved when it’s finally time to begin World Cup qualification for 2022. But the team could still benefit from Fürther peak-age production; it could also use a progressive midfielder to go with McKennie and the more defensive-minded Adams, plus maybe the best set-piece catalyst in the player pool.

In other words, it could still potentially use Green.

Let’s compare Green’s club-team output over the past two years with that of some of the other primary midfielders in the U.S. player pool.

USMNT midfielder club stats (per 90 minutes), last two calendar years:

(NOTE: Younger players like Richard Ledezma and Alex Mendez are also intriguing prospects, but have only begun to play at the senior club level.)

If you’re under the fair assumption that McKennie and Adams are atop the heap at the moment and take them out of the pool, then even acknowledging the variety of midfield duties in a given system, there’s a fair case to make that Green has been the most productive of the bunch. And while he is indeed playing in the German second division, the small size of the Bundesliga (18 teams) means that Fürth are basically the 21st- or 22nd-best team in a soccer-friendly country. This is by no means the minor leagues; for comparison, FiveThirtyEight’s club rankings place Fürth between MLS sides Orlando City (sixth in points per game last season) and the Colorado Rapids (10th).

Green’s case for inclusion is strong even before you factor in how similar Fürth’s style is to what Berhalter deploys. Over the past two years, the USMNT has posted a 56% possession rate, averaged 5.9 passes per possession (Fürth averages 4.7) and began a Fürth-like 8.0 possessions per match in the attacking third.

“I think the style of playing, how [Berhalter] wants to play, is also my style,” Green said. “They want to have the ball, and I’m a player who’s very good on the ball and very safe on the ball. I’m good between the lines. It’s the style of playing I prefer.”

When’s the last time he heard from Berhalter? “I wrote him a text message before the Gold Cup, I remember, so that was the last time I was personally in contact with him. Since then, my management has been occasionally in contact with him.”

It was a bit of a surprise last fall when Berhalter didn’t include Green in a Europe-only USMNT camp that included friendlies with Wales and Panama and offered debut opportunities for players like Musah.

“For me personally, I thought maybe I had a chance to get invited because I think my performances in the [2. Bundesliga] with my club were strong,” he said. “But the coach decided differently, and that’s OK — that’s his decision. But my goal is to play again for the national team, and I will keep working hard and do my best here with Fürth, and that’s the only thing I can do.”

Keep kicking butt until they notice you: generally, a pretty solid plan.

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“I think back in the early part of [Green’s career], there was a certain perception with the European players, the German-based players,” Sarachan said. “I’ve been told sometimes, certain players, they kind of are in the national team, maybe it isn’t as important to them, but I didn’t get that impression with Julian — throughout [2018], Julian was a good pro, very engaged and excited to be a part of the national team. He’s quiet, not a guy that’s gonna command the room, and he sometimes has a little more of a comfort level with being with his compatriots from Germany, but that didn’t interfere with the team trying to accomplish our goals during the week or 10 days we would be together.”

However you felt about Green during the Klinsmann era and the years that followed, it’s easy to make the case that he’s become maybe the most underrated player in the U.S. player pool. Sarachan remains a fan. “If you’re a guy that can create, whether it’s those slip-in balls or finishing, assists, goals, you’ve gotta keep those guys a part of things! We don’t have enough of them, and I still think Julian is in the conversation.”

It would certainly help Green’s cause, however, if Fürth were to earn promotion. (Beating Sargent’s Werder Bremen in the next round of the DFB-Pokal on Feb. 2 wouldn’t hurt, either.) But whether or not Berhalter ever looks his way, his career appears to have an awfully high ceiling — it’s only about halfway done, after all. There will be more plot twists to come.

“I just love this game, and I just want to get the best out of my career,” Green said. “It’s normal that you sometimes have [setbacks], but you’re getting stronger and more fit and … at the end I think I will have [had] a pretty good career, and I can be happy about it.”

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