GLENDALE, Ariz. — On the night Julian Green made his U.S. debut, it’s probably best to reiterate what Green is and what he isn’t right now.
Here’s what he is: A promising German-American who has chosen to compete for the U.S. national team. An 18-year-old forward who has risen through the ranks at Bayern Munich and played well for its second team this season. A polite young man who made his U.S. debut in front of nearly 60,000 fans against Mexico on Wednesday, who may well make the 2014 World Cup team and who could (if things work out) have a significant impact at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The big year on the Julian calendar is 2018.
On the eve of the 10-year anniversary of Freddy Adu’s overhyped MLS debut, though, it’s important to note what Green is not right now: The savior of American soccer. The guy who’s going to carry the U.S. to victory over Germany, Portugal and Ghana in Brazil this summer. The guy who’s a finished product.
And that’s just fine.
Yes, it’s a shot in the arm for U.S. Soccer that Green chose to play for the U.S. over Germany, and yes, Green’s debut was one of the big stories of the 2-2 tie between the U.S. and Mexico on Wednesday. But the game was also the start of a long process for Green and the national team. At 9:34 p.m. MST, midway through the second half, Green came on as a sub alongside Landon Donovan, the U.S.’s all-time leading goal-scorer, and there was a nice historical symbolism in that.
Donovan, too, made his U.S. debut as an 18-year-old against Mexico. Donovan, too, was playing his club ball in the German reserve divisions at the time. And Donovan, too, had gotten plenty of attention for his exploits in the youth ranks.
Green didn’t end up scoring in his debut, as Donovan did, but he did have some nice moments, combining with Clint Dempsey on a move down the left side that earned a U.S. corner kick and going to ground in the box on a play that U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said should have been a penalty. He also had a couple plays that he’d like back, including not tracking back well enough to defend on Mexico’s second goal.
What Green’s debut will be remembered for, mostly, is the excitement of making his first appearance in a U.S. jersey -- he’ll get a ball signed by the rest of the team -- and the knowledge that (whew!) the first game is behind him.
How patient should everyone be with Green?
“Very patient,” said U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley afterward with a smile. “He’s still an 18-year-old kid. He’s an 18-year-old kid with a lot of talent and a lot of ability. I think he showed a little bit of that tonight. He certainly showed a little bit of that in training. More than anything, tonight was just about getting him out on the field for the first time and letting him enjoy that and almost in some ways getting that out of the way. Now he can come in and feel like he’s part of the group.”
Klinsmann put the full-court press on Green in recent months and persuaded him to opt for the Stars & Stripes over Germany. It was not a small decision. And yet Klinsmann, too, was realistic about the significance of Green’s first game.
“I think you saw in some moments how he goes into the box and draws two guys and should have drawn a penalty,” said Klinsmann. “Obviously, he was nervous too, and he plays his first cap in front of 60,000 against Mexico. Here and there maybe you slip and lose your balance like it happened to him once there. But the team welcomed him with open arms. When you’re among other players you check each other out, and you understand within 10 minutes if it’s a good player or not. Julian is a very good player.”
Green himself didn’t answer any questions when he walked through the post-game mixed zone after the game. That’s fine too. Any of us who covered Adu a decade ago knows that restraint in the face of outsized media attention can be a good thing. You certainly hope Green wasn’t overly disappointed with his first U.S. game -- the stakes for this friendly weren’t high -- and you hope he’ll have a smile when he looks back at the first time he wore the jersey of the U.S. senior men’s national team.