Germany to college to MLS: Julian Gressel, Fabian Herbers blazing a trail

Fabian Herbers - Philadelphia Union - Close up

CHESTER, Pa. — A day before Atlanta United played Portland last week, Julian Gressel watched as Fabian Herbers capped the Philadelphia Union’s 4-0 win over D.C. United with a superb goal.

“And I said, ‘Alright, I guess it’s time for me now to score as well,’” Gressel told

The Atlanta United rookie did just that, netting the game-tying goal — his first as a pro — in a 1-1 road draw with the Timbers on Sunday.

Gressel and Herbers then sent texts to each other to offer congratulations — “all in German of course,” Herbers said.

The two 23-year-old midfielders have gotten to know each other fairly well after carving similar paths from Germany to the Big East to MLS. And it’s a path they think more and more German-born players will follow. 

Coming to America

Herbers and Gressel both had opportunities to stay in Germany to pursue a professional career. But for each of them, that path seemed like a risk they weren't sure they wanted to take.

Herbers used the term “hit or miss” to describe it since in Germany he would have had to choose between attending a university or continuing to play soccer.

“Not everyone makes it professionally and then you don’t have an education to fall back on,” said the Union’s second-year winger, who believes he likely could have played for a third-division club in his home country. “For guys on the verge of making it and who value education at the same time, it’s a very useful step to go to America to play Division I soccer and grow as a person and grow as a soccer player and get smarter and study what you like. Overall, it’s a very good system and a very good path for Germans to go.”

Herbers had a unique experience growing up, crossing the border every day and attending the youth academy at FC Twente in the Netherlands. Gressel spent much of his youth playing days with German club SpVgg Greuther Fürth before learning a tough lesson about the cutthroat world of European soccer, when he was cut loose from the academy before the U-16 level because he “wasn’t good enough.”

At that point, Gressel tried to find the fun again in the sport he loved, playing for an amateur side and then spending a year as an exchange student in the US, where he also got into lacrosse and golf. Upon returning to Germany when he was 17, he played for a local amateur team before moving with a coach to a fourth-division club. He perhaps could have continued to rise through the ranks, but getting a taste of America during his exchange year fueled his desire to play college soccer.

“When I played for the fourth-division team, an assistant coach said that some Bundesliga teams might be interested because I played well,” he said. “But at that time, I kind of already knew I wanted to go to college. In Germany, it’s either one or the other: it’s soccer or education. That’s definitely one of the main reasons I wanted to come over here, to combine both of them.”

Gressel and Herbers, who didn’t know each other growing up, went through similar recruiting processes, finding an agency in Germany that completed an online profile and highlight package to show to American coaches. The first one to contact Herbers was Creighton, which he deemed was a perfect fit. Gressel was similarly happy to attend Providence, where he graduated in three-and-a-half years with a degree in management before being picked eighth overall in this year’s SuperDraft.

Herbers, who remembers having some fierce battles with Gressel in college, came out a year earlier and was selected sixth overall in the 2016 SuperDraft. But he’s still taking online classes and hopes to soon get his degree in sports management.

For both players, focusing on education was something that was important to both them and their families.

“In Germany, people don’t know about college soccer, to be honest,” Herbers said. “There’s no such thing. For me, an agent hit me up and said, ‘I can see the potential, you’re a smart guy, you can probably make it overseas.’ I said, ‘Lemme look into this.’

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life at that point, when I was 19, 20. I thought that I should just go for it. And it worked out so well for me.”

Germany to college to MLS: Julian Gressel, Fabian Herbers blazing a trail -

An MLS trend?

Although Herbers has settled into more of a reserve role this season, he’s still an important part of the Union’s future after emerging as one of the league’s top rookies last year. And Gressel has been a starter from Day One for expansion side Atlanta.

Perhaps this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, considering both players have a unique pedigree that combines all that they learned in European academies with their very different experiences playing college soccer in the US.

“I think soccer is more developed in Germany tactically and with technique,” Herbers said. “I learned a lot growing up. Once I came to America, it was more about physical play and athleticism. That’s a good combination to pursue in MLS.”

Gressel agreed, adding that the “strength training” in college helped him build on the foundation he laid in Germany and get him ready for the next level. And even though the European academies are lauded around the world, both Gressel and Herbers praised the college soccer system as helping athletes grow in a variety of ways. Gressel has even noticed that German academies are trying to better incorporate education and emphasize school, saying that one of his two younger brothers back home now has to show his transcripts to his club.

“I hear a lot of people here complain about the college system — how it doesn’t bring out enough quality players,” Gressel said. “It’s tough, because you obviously have players who will make millions and don’t really need an education. But a lot of pro soccer players won’t have that much money after they’re done with their careers, so they need an education for their life after that.”

Gressel and Herbers, of course, aren’t the only ones who’ve followed such a path. Herbers was good friends with D.C. United’s Julian Buescher growing up in Germany, and he believes the University of Maryland’s Gordon Wild will soon be the next German-born standout in MLS.

Meanwhile, Gressel said that he’s talked to several of his brothers’ friends back in his native country about his experiences playing in college and now in MLS — which leads him to believe that “more and more players want to come over and take that path.”

“They read about Herbers or now me and maybe they want that as well,” Gressel said. “We’re kind of like role models in that sense.”