AMSTERDAM – While most American young adults have designs on their first legal bar crawl when they turn 21, Molde FK winger Josh Gatt will have a very different wish when he blows out the candles on Wednesday: a Europa League group-stage pass.
The flank terror and his teammates have brought a 2-0 first-leg lead to the Netherlands for Thursday night's playoff-round decider at Heerenveen.
"We are excited but not overconfident," Gatt recently told MLSsoccer.com by e-mail. "We know that Heerenveen is going to come out gunning, so we have to make sure we stay calm and play our game. If we do that, we like our chances of moving on."
It's probably the biggest cup match for Molde since they were blasted out of the 1996 Cup Winners' Cup round of 32 by eventual winners Paris Saint-Germain, and by extension the biggest game of Gatt's burgeoning career to date. Group stage participation is a major financial boost to any club of their level and a six-pack of advanced lessons for any young player.
If attitude counts for anything, Gatt, the squad and the entire town of about 25,000 people are ravenously craving another round of tests against Europe's best. Having won their first league crown last season, everyone around Molde is hungry for more.
"Molde is not a big city but I can tell you, they are passionate about their football," he assured. "We delivered gold last year, so the expectations for this year are very high. As for the coaches and my teammates, they feel the same way I do. We all want to go against some of the bigger clubs in Europe and see how we stack up."
So far this season, Gatt and Molde have been stacking up quite well. Although a late penalty kick at Basel recently cost them advancement in the Champions League, the champs again lead the league heading into the final 10 games.
As for Gatt, he is showing tremendous growth in his second year with the club. After notching two goals in 22 games last season, the youngster already has five (along with three assists) in just 14 games this term.
His improvement has been no secret, with leading Norwegian paper VG currently ranking him as the sixth-best player in the league this season while rival publication Aftenposten has him tied for seventh. And Gatt has only become more cobra-like as the schedule unwinds: He has scored the opening goal in his last three Tippeligaen outings.
When asked to describe how he's grown since last season, the thoughtful speedster is quick to talk about his enhanced tactical awareness, technique and finishing lethality. He's even quicker to credit it all to Molde boss Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
"I believe he has made me a much better and more complete player," Gatt said. "He is honest and provides direct feedback, both the good and bad. For a young professional with lofty goals, I can’t think of a better place to be right now. Any progress that I have made is a direct result of him and his coaching staff."
If that progress continues at pace – like most of Gatt's activities – it will soon see him earning his first international call-up, and eventually a move up the ladder of European leagues. MLSsoccer.com has learned that both USMNT coaches and scouts from a couple of Eredivisie clubs were in the stands to watch him work in the first-leg victory over Heerenveen last week.
That's all for later, though. For now, Gatt is squarely focused on celebrating his birthday with a happy Europa League result at the Abe Lenstra Stadion on Thursday and chasing a title repeat back in Norway. As with most things, the Michigan native is approaching that latter team goal with a sober awareness not typically expected from freshly turned 21-year-olds.
"One of the areas we need to improve is finishing in the final third," he offered, no schedule pun intended. "If we continue to stick to our plan and get a little better at finishing, we are a very tough team to beat."