Julian Green and Chris Wondolowski an unlikely and effective U.S. pairing
Jurgen Klinsmann is fond of saying how the door is never really closed for a national team player. Last month, it was Sacha Kljestan who was living proof of that statement. In Friday's 2-0 victory over Cuba, it was time for Julian Green -- and to a slightly lesser extent, Chris Wondolowski -- to be held up as an example.
Green and Wondolowski were involved in both goals at the Estadio Pedro Marrero. It was Green's shot in the 62nd minute that was parried away by Cuba goalkeeper Sandy Sanchez, only for second-half substitute Wondolowski to jump on the rebound and fire home for the first U.S. goal. Nine minutes later the roles were reversed, Green scoring from close range after Wondolowski had found him with a low centering feed.
Along the way, Green ended a pair of humbling streaks. While Green appeared in the May 22 game against Puerto Rico, you had to go back to a Sept. 3, 2014, friendly against the Czech Republic to find the last time he started a match for the Americans. His last goal? That would be the round-of-16 match against Belgium at the 2014 World Cup, when Green brought the U.S. within a goal of what would be a 2-1 defeat.
Ah yes, the Belgium game. That night in Salvador saw Green and Wondolowski etched into U.S. lore for very different reasons. Green earned his spot for the goal he scored and Wondolowski for the potential winner, which he missed. And yet the two players have gone off in directions that are incongruous with those two plays.
It was Green who was supposed to go on to bigger and better things. At just 21 years of age, he may yet, of course, but you would have gotten long odds that he would have had to wait so long between international goals. Instead, the last two-plus years have seen him practically disappear. There was his disastrous loan to Hamburg, and when mired in a relegation dogfight, the club decided -- not surprisingly -- to go with veteran heads. Green was even demoted to the club's reserves. He then spent all of the 2014-15 season with Bayern Munich's reserves in the fourth-tier Regionalliga Bayern.
Yet Green remains in the reckoning of Klinsmann. It is to Green's credit that he has stuck with Bayern's first team this season, but playing time remains nearly impossible to come by among the club's impressive list of attacking talents. His contract is up this summer, and at some point, Green will need to find playing time in order for his game to grow. Practice among world-class talents will only take him so far.
Wondolowski, rather than letting his miss define him, has kept at it and registered double-digit goals with the San Jose Earthquakes for seven seasons running now. Not even the Quakes' struggles as a team have stopped him, and he has done so even as plenty of observers wonder why he keeps getting called into the U.S. squad. Klinsmann often points to the example Wondolowski sets on the field and in the locker room, and certainly it was his grinding ways that played a part in Friday's win.
The extent to which Green used Wondolowski as an inspiration is unknown. A more likely source of fight has been the last two-plus years of struggle, the ability to push through honed over time. Attitudewise, there was a lot of Wondolowski in Green's performance on Friday. Green didn't let the horrible field or humid conditions affect him. He just played his game, taking on defenders and looking to create opportunities. The fact that some attempts were saved or blocked by defenders didn't deter him. He kept plugging away, and his involvement in both goals seemed an inevitability rather than a surprise.
Without question, Friday's performances by Green and Wondolowski aren't a guarantee of anything going forward. Wondolowski's time with the national team is certainly winding down, though for the moment, there seems no let up in Klinsmann's desire for young players to follow the forward's example. As for Green, there are still some other players on the U.S. depth chart to climb over. But with his ability to grind now emerging, it seems like his wait for that third international goal won't be nearly as long.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.