Now he has committed, Green must prove himself
News today that Bayern Munich’s 18-year-old prospect Julian Green has elected to represent the USA may feel, for U.S. Soccer fans, like the equivalent of winning a Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka's factory. While U.S. Soccer files a petition to FIFA for Green’s onetime allegiance switch, I turned to Alexi Lalas to discuss the implications for the player, U.S. Soccer, the 2014 World Cup and Jurgen Klinsmann’s long-term thinking. Roger Bennett: The U.S. are now Red, White and Green. For all of the excitement, the player, who left Tampa, Fla., for Germany at 2 years of age, has barely played a minute for the Bayern Munich first team. Is it a good thing for the U.S. ahead of this World Cup that he has committed to the team? Alexi Lalas: It is a good thing in that it is a form of competition that the United States has won. What we often won’t say, however, is that the reason these players pick the United States is that they know they can’t play for the alternative. Signing up for the United States is often an admission they are not good enough. Bennett: Isn’t this what makes the Julian Green case so fascinating? He is too young to make such an admission. We simply do not know yet how good he will be. Yet, he has looked inside himself, asked himself what is important to him and felt the hunger to take to the World Cup stage. He wants it now. Lalas: Which is not a good enough reason. There has to be something emotional about the decision to play for the United States. Believe me, if you are just a mercenary, that will manifest itself on the field for you, or off the field for your teammates. - Green commits to the U.S. - Klinsmann on Green's talent Bennett: Aren’t the United States damned if they do, damned if they don’t here though? If Green is left there for the taking, his name could be added to the painful roster of "Dual nationals who got away" like Giuseppe Rossi, Neven Subotic and Vedad Ibisevic. If he signs up for duty, he could be scapegoated a la David Regis in 1998. Lalas: I don’t see them as twin torments. Nor do I view Rossi or Subotic as “ones that got away.” If the players don't have the emotional connection to the country they are playing for, and a pride in making that decision to represent them, then their performance will suffer. Those players don't have the attachment to the country. I believe we dodged the bullet. The emotional attachment between player and country has to be there. You can help influence that decision by showing all the wonderful things that will come by joining on our side. In that way, international football is a lot like wooing a collegiate athlete on a recruiting trip. Bennett: If that is true, how many SEC schools will want to take a run at hiring Jurgen Klinsmann because isn't that where a coach with his standing comes in? Having witnessed him in Frankfurt during the European camp and seen firsthand how feted he is on the streets of that city, the love and respect Europeans have for him as a sensational footballer, where does that play in? Lalas: That is exactly where the power of Jurgen Klinsmann lies. When he calls up a player like Julian Green, he has a tremendous amount of cachet, attracting players and their parents. That is where he is worth what U.S. Soccer pay for him. Bennett: You have been through this once as a player, Alexi, with David Regis, the French defender who signed up after marrying an American and joined with the squad in May 1998 ahead of a disastrous World Cup campaign. What, if anything, do we learn from that? Lalas: That was the dark side of this situation. If a player comes in and is not as good or [is] worse than what you already have in the squad from a competitive perspective, that breeds resentment very quickly. If the player comes in and through his own fault, or through other factors, is not absorbed into the squad’s culture, either because of an unwillingness on his part, a language barrier, or a personality trait, then that will come into play. Julian Green is a young, unproven player so that should not be a problem. But, we do not know if he is any good yet. He is going to be taking a World Cup roster place from a player we do know about and that could rub some people the wrong way. Regis came to the team very late. He just seemed to turn up and away we go. This is before the age of the Internet; we had no idea who he was. He was just a guy who played in France and had a left foot. He was nice. He did not speak much English. Jeff Agoos had been with the team, Regis took his place and started immediately. He lacked a personal connection to the team or the other players and his background was so completely different to ours there was little in the way of interrelatable background. What we learned is the dynamics of a team that is created over multiple years is fragile. Bennett: I saw Green train with the team over two days in Frankfurt. He is very quick, fleet of both foot and mind. Good with his left and right. Courageous, and with sufficient intelligence to turn defenders inside out. As an 18-year-old, his physical development obviously has a way to go but he looks very, very good indeed. Good enough for Jurgen Klinsmann, a coach who wants to push his players out of their comfort zone, to add him for that reason alone, as a way to signal to the rest of his squad that no one can take their place for granted. Lalas: Yes. Green’s selection can be used as a motivational force and Jurgen may be using it as such. The rest of the squad will be asking themselves, “Who is this kid who has been given a golden ticket?” And once again, it is a way to show that if you play in Europe, you have an advantage over MLS veterans, even if you are a young player who's not done anything yet. Jurgen is a manager of men. He knows he is far enough away from the World Cup for this decision to be successful, but close enough to send a message. But ultimately, this will be settled on the field. As Aron Johannsson has demonstrated, if you bring quality onto the field and show you are better than your rivals, acceptance will come with that. Bennett: The last thing I would ask -- and no offense, Alexi -- but don’t you think the U.S. team has changed since your 1998 squad? Back then you were such a band of brothers. U.S. Soccer seems more global and more professional now; a squad of talented players who understand that in international football you want to take the field with the best team possible if you want to win. Aren’t they less likely to reject a new talent like a host body repelling a donor organ in 1998? Lalas: Absolutely. I have come to recognize that the way you look back at the past and the whimsical memories you have of it are not necessarily the direct route to change. Sometimes I have to recognize the team has evolved and changed. What worked then might not be the same as what works now. Regardless, if you do not have an understanding of who you represent, and take pride in the country you represent -- a pride which can manifest itself in multiple ways -- I believe the U.S. -- or any international team -- will be hurt. Jurgen’s job is to make sure the players understand representing the United States is not about money. It is about doing something historic; representing a nation and bringing pride to it. I hope that never goes away.