FURTH, Germany — On July 1, 2014, Julian Green had the world at his feet. Coming off the bench for the United States in the World Cup round of 16 against Belgium in extra time, the then-19-year-old scored moments later, cutting in from the left and firing past Thibaut Courtois to cut the deficit to 2-1. However, his goal wasn’t enough to secure progress, and just under four years later, the USMNT are picking up the pieces after missing out on the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
It hasn’t gone much better for Green: the attacker last featured for his country during the final days of Jurgen Klinsmann in 2016 and has now retreated to Germany’s second division to restart his career.
Once heralded as the U.S. national team’s next big thing, Green vanished from the headlines when swapping Bayern Munich for VfB Stuttgart in early 2017, and last summer, he took another step back to join Greuther Furth on loan until the end of the season. Yet for the first time in his career, Green is getting regular playing time in a senior team, and although the club are battling to avoid relegation to the third tier for the first time in more than 20 years, the 22-year-old is pleased with his decision.
“I feel good about how things are,” Green told ESPN FC at the Shamrocks’ training ground. “I always want to improve myself and have great goals. It’s not my goal to play in the second division but rather in the first league. That’s what I work towards.”
Green has already been in the “first league.” He’s been at Bayern Munich and already been a star. Having made it to the 2014 World Cup without playing a minute of Bundesliga action, even seemingly pushing Landon Donovan out of the door on the way, a lot of pressure suddenly rested on Green’s young shoulders. Expectations were high, and in 2013 Klinsmann said: “We believe we could help him grow into a special player.”
In late August 2014, Green left his nest under Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich to join Hamburger SV on loan. The idea was to take a step back in a bid to get regular playing time, something that had proved impossible in Bayern’s star-studded squad.
“I trained with the best players in the world at Bayern,” Green, who rarely played in Munich aside from a few appearances during a preseason tour of the United States, said. “You could learn from everyone, starting with Philipp Lahm to Arjen Robben. From those players on my position. Robben, Franck Ribery and even Robert Lewandowski. They gave me advice, and to see them in training made me stronger.”
But just training wasn’t enough and Green left for Hamburg, a club already descending into chaos at that time. One game into his loan, coach Mirko Slomka, the one who had convinced him to head north, was sacked. Green would go on to make just four more appearances as a substitute, and in the winter, he was sent to the under-23s where he played just once. And that was that.
“I had about four coaches that year. It was an experience, and you’re always smarter in hindsight. But I wouldn’t even say it was bad for me,” Green said of that lost year. “I no longer look back. I talk about things ahead, and no longer about Hamburg.”
Returning to Bayern in 2015, Green looked to get a boost in the club’s under-23 and as he returned to form and trained with the first team, he picked up more confidence.
“I always had a good relationship with Pep Guardiola. He didn’t say much, but every now and then we talked. I played in one Champions League match [a meaningless game vs. Dinamo Zagreb in December],” Green said. “But I was more focused on the U-23s; I scored 10 goals that season. And when Carlo Ancelotti came [in 2016], I was part of the pro team again.”
As he had been in 2014, Green was again given run-outs during Bayern’s U.S. tour and despite scoring a hat trick against Inter, when the 2016-17 season kicked off, he was sat on the bench again. Yet it was enough to win his return to the USMNT and the German-American won his last two caps against Cuba and New Zealand — “I owe a lot to Jurgen Klinsmann. He was a good coach. But he is no longer there” — but under Bruce Arena, Green was cast aside.
With the end of his Bayern contract nearing, the winger moved to Stuttgart in January 2017 but after a good start, he lost his place on the team.
“We won promotion. It was a good year, but in the summer my chances of getting into the team weren’t that good. And that’s why I joined Furth,” he said.
If the United States men’s national team didn’t notice, the U.S. media certainly did with one Deadspin article headline reading: “Former USMNT ‘Savior’ Julian Green Sent Away To A Last-Place Club With No Manager.” It wasn’t the type of headline that Green was used to generating but he understands it’s all part of the sport.
“It’s normal, especially in the United States,” said Green. “You get hyped so much and if things don’t go so well, then it’s in the other way. You must handle that if you want to play at a high level.”
When Green joined, Furth had no points after four games. They picked up four in the next five games but are now back fighting against relegation.
Green’s loan spell at Furth will end this summer — he’s played 13 league games so far, scoring one goal. But most importantly, for the first time in his career, he has become a regular starter. The 22-year-old is not sure what is next for him but he is enjoying his time on the pitch, away from the spotlight.
“My plan is to return to Stuttgart in the summer,” Green said. “But you will see. A lot can happen. My focus is on now, and I don’t think about what will be in seven, eight months.”
While there is one dream he continues to chase — “I think in the future you will me see again in the national team” — for now, Green has found some peace. He is ignoring the critics and focusing on the future, while he will always have that one goal from 2014 to look back on.
“To score this goal, was a dream come true for me,” he said. “And I am very happy for this time at the World Cup. Now I am looking forward to the rest of my career.”
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.