Paxton Pomykal is six years younger than Julian Gressel, and has played 8,165 fewer minutes and 82 fewer games of MLS regular-season action.
The FC Dallas midfielder does already have his US men’s national team debut under his belt, however, and couldn’t resist joshing his elder teammate as they sat side by side taking questions from media on the first day of the USMNT’s January camp.
“Vibes are great. We have two great games ahead of us this week, opportunities for a lot of guys that haven't had caps yet – like this guy right here,” said Paxton with a smile towards Gressel on Saturday afternoon at Dignity Health Sports Park.
Gressel smiled too, fully cognizant of his relatively unique situation. The Vancouver Whitecaps wingback turned 29 last month, making him the third-oldest player in camp behind World Cup veterans Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman, and quite a bit older than the typical January camp newcomer.
All that said, he got here as quickly as he possibly could.
“Obviously it wasn't possible before because of the citizenship that I've just recently gotten now, finally,” said the German-born veteran, who completed a long path to full United States citizenship in November. “For me, it's an exciting week to be here. I'm just trying to do my best this week and put my best foot forward and get to know everybody. It gives them a chance to get to know me, and whatever comes in the future, I'll deal with that then, I'll worry about that later.”
Late to the USMNT party
As those words indicate, Gressel plans to stick with the step-by-step mindset that brought him here. The upcoming MLS season will be his seventh, and he began to earn USMNT buzz way back in 2017, when he notched five goals and nine assists en route to his Rookie of the Year campaign amid Atlanta United’s paradigm-shifting inaugural year. The dawn of his personal American experience dates back quite a bit further.
“How long do you have? It was a long journey and one that's pretty unusual, I think,” laughed Gressel when asked to reflect on his journey to this point.
He first visited the States as an exchange student in high school, and when his footballing career back home in Germany didn’t unfold quite the way he wanted – Gressel spent time in the academy setups at Greuther Fürth and Quelle Fürth and at lower-tier sides FC Eintracht Bamberg and TSV Neustadt/Aisch – he returned to try college soccer with Providence College. Not only did he shine at NCAA level, but he also met his future wife Casey in Rhode Island, and their marriage eventually got him the US passport that at last made him eligible for a USMNT call.
The fact that he’s remained productive enough on the pitch – he's now up to 21g/60a in 184 regular-season appearances, plus another 2g/2a and a 2018 MLS Cup triumph on his playoff résumé – to remain on the national team’s radar after all this time, across three different clubs with dramatically different tactical outlooks and rosters with which to support him, is another impressive metric of his patience and persistence.
“It's definitely been a long journey, a journey that I've enjoyed ever since I set foot into the US,” said Gressel on Saturday. “I fell in love with the country and that's why it's really exciting to be able to represent the US on the field in these upcoming two games. Even my family back home, they're obviously all German and all from Germany – they're very excited.
“I got phone calls, I had a really cool conversation with my grandpa, for example, who's a huge, huge soccer fan, obviously a huge a fan of mine. I could really hear how proud he was in his voice and how excited he was for me to have this opportunity that I've worked hard for.”
His citizenship was a long time in the making, though it wasn’t an automatic guarantor of a shot with the USMNT.
“Obviously a lot happened, especially after the World Cup, that's why it was still a bit uncertain about what this camp would look like, so I wasn't sure,” said Gressel. “Then it was a great surprise to find out that at first I was on the preliminary roster, then Anthony Hudson called me and asked me if I wanted to come in and it was a great conversation we had initially.”
Respected above all for his incisive deliveries from wide areas and set pieces, Gressel is listed as a defender on this January roster, though he thinks he might receive a look in more advanced wide spots, too. He expects to get most of his reps at right back in the 4-3-3 system that interim coach Anthony Hudson is expected to carry over from Gregg Berhalter’s tenure while the federation conducts an overarching review of the program alongside an independent investigation into the events surrounding the last World Cup.
With only a handful of veterans from the adventure in Qatar called in this month, that measure of continuity offers an important degree of stability on which Gressel and the other newbies can try to build their case ahead of the full international window in late March, when the Yanks will meet Grenada and El Salvador in Concacaf Nations League play.
“Yeah, I think it's very clear that the style of play, I don't think it's going to change too much from what we've seen in the World Cup,” said Gressel. “For us players coming in, obviously, we've all watched the games – and we not just watched it with half an eye, I think we watched it pretty well. And so we kind of know what roles we need to be in, in terms of different positions and stuff. And I think over the next few days we'll have more in-depth conversations with the coaching staff and we’ll find out how many minutes we'll play and all that type of stuff because it is still preseason.”
Reality checks abound.
In the mix for 2026?
The USMNT program is in limbo, having entered a painfully awkward state of transition both on and off the field. The next World Cup is three and a half years away, and co-hosting responsibilities mean that the US won’t have to play qualifying matches to take part, meaning that fully competitive matches will be scarcer than usual. They just advanced into the knockout rounds of Qatar ‘22 with one of the youngest squads on the planet, and competition for places is likely to increase in the buildup to a feverishly-anticipated tournament on North American soil.
Gressel will be 32 by that point. Everything could be totally different, or not. He doesn’t have to think too much about that now, though. Gleaning maximum value out of every possible moment of these next few training sessions and the friendlies vs. Serbia (Jan. 25) and Colombia (Jan. 28) is more than enough to focus on, and be thrilled about.
“No matter what happens in the future, I think you can show that you want to be a part of the group moving forward, whatever that will look like. Again, it's a big opportunity,” he said.
“Now to be a part of that and to be able to represent that on the field as well is something very special, I think. It's something that we can definitely build on. And I think that everyone that's coming in as a player knows what the standard is, and that's being at the very top. That's where the US belongs and that's where we're trying to get to, obviously, in three-and-a-half years. It's the start of it.”