United States-Mexico sure was a long way from the German fourth division.
For all his matches with the reserve team of European champions Bayern Munich in the lower tiers of German soccer, the moment clearly got to Julian Green on Wednesday night when he made his USMNT debut vs. El Tri.
No surprise, Green looked like the unproven, 18-year-old kid he is. Deer-in-the-headlights stuff.
He was wide-eyed, jittery and looked unsure of himself. So unsure that at one moment US captain Clint Dempsey felt the need to eagerly extend his right arm and point exactly where he wanted Green to deliver a through ball. It was like the kindergarten teacher telling the toddler where to put the toys away.
"You saw in some moments what this kid is actually capable to do, how he goes in the box, draws two guys and should have gotten the penalty," Klinsmann said in his post-game press conference about the highlight of Green’s 30-minute stint.
"Obviously he was nervous to play his first cap in front of 60,000 against Mexico, here and there you slip, lose your balance like it happened once there. Within 10 minutes [you know] whether he's a good player or not. Julian is a very good player."
No. First, it wasn’t a penalty (the contact was outside the box) and secondly, I watched him for 30 minutes and didn’t see the “he’s a very good player” part. One stepover move does not a great performance make. He went at the Mexican right back a few times? Big deal. Brek Shea has been doing it for his entire USMNT career and he’s done it better.
If you’re Green, a teenager with minimal first-team experience anywhere in the world, you'd better be capable of doing something extra darn special to justify earning a spot in what essentially amounts to the final tryout before next month's World Cup camp. He didn’t show it.
And this US team has no time to hold his hand and teach him how to walk on the big stage. If your knees are buckling with nerves and you’re slipping all over the field, you’re just not even remotely ready for a World Cup.
“What about young Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley playing for the USMNT in 2002!” some Green-giddy US fans will argue. Apples to oranges: The US squad depth those days was nothing like it is today. And both Beasley and Donovan (they were both 20 years old at the time) had played full seasons for top-flight clubs in MLS and cut their teeth as starters. Green is not there.
His US teammates won’t ever call him out publicly for the lack of chops. All you had to do was listen to Michael Bradley’s diplomatic postgame statement Wednesday night with ESPN's Jeremy Schapp, who inquired about Green’s performance.
"I think it's exciting," Bradley said. "A young kid like that with so much talent and so much ability. For him it was just about getting out there for the first time, enjoying himself and getting the first one done with. Now we can really get him going."
But this is what Bradley told me during a February sit-down in Orlando about his quest to climb the ladder in Europe during the days he was fighting for a starting spot at Heerenveen in the Netherlands:
“Today, you look around and you see young players at 20, 23 years old and they’ve not played any games. There are highly thought of players who in some cases are skillful, good players. But you look back and they’ve not played any games … They have no experience of what it means to play games. And for me, that move to Holland was perfect in that sense.”
Even Brazilian legend Ronaldo, who was famously included in that 1994 Brazil World Cup as a 17-year-old, was already a steady goalscorer with Cruzeiro and led them to the Copa do Brasil championship.
And didn’t Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Theo Walcott gamble in 2006 – the Swede surprisingly named the 17-year-old Arsenal wunderkind to the England squad – already teach us a lesson here? After the fact, even Walcott himself admitted his inclusion was not warranted: “I didn’t deserve to go to the 2006 World Cup. I hadn’t played in the Premier League or justified being there at all.”
The Walcott move backfired. Not only did he not see the field in Germany, but his England teammates didn’t appreciate his presence. Steven Gerrard also came out and ripped the decision in his autobiography.
Wednesday’s US opponent, Mexico, also faced a similar situation in 2010 when they tried to bring along then 20-year-old Barcelona reserve team member Jonathan dos Santos (brother of Giovani dos Santos) a little too soon. The decision left a cloud of World Cup controversy in its wake when he wasn’t named.
Klinsmann needs to bring the circus to an end. If you want Green to experience the World Cup so bad, just go ahead and pay for Green and perhaps other youngsters like Luis Gil and DeAndre Yedlin, to join the US World Cup delegation and train with the team in Brazil (Ecuador did it with current starter Felipe Caicedo when he was 17 in 2006). But make it clear now that Green won’t be part of the official roster.
The US boss would be doing a favor for Green – there's pressure and despite the fact that U.S. Soccer won't make him available to media, you know he’s hearing all the chatter – and for the US national team program. The USA would surely be the only country at the World Cup carrying a player from the fourth division.
Let's come to grips with reality: Green may one day be World Cup quality. But right now he's not ready and he won’t be ready in time for Brazil. Time to stop pretending he will be.