As one of the most sought-after free agents on the MLS market last winter, fresh off an MLS Cup triumph with the Columbus Crew, Julian Gressel had ample options when considering his next career move.

One particularly tempting pitch arrived from the New England Revolution, who play just half an hour up the highway from Providence College, where he and his wife Casey met as students and he first drew the attention of MLS scouts during a distinguished NCAA career from 2013-16.

“That was really appealing to us, just because that's where I went to college, that's where my wife is from,” Gressel, who hopped from D.C. United to Vancouver Whitecaps FC to Columbus in a series of trades from 2022-23, explained in a recent conversation with MLSsoccer.com.

“My wife has got family still there; we have two young kids. We've been all over the shop a little bit over the last three years, and we were tired of the jumping-around part of it all and were ready to settle down a bit.”

Yet he’d also gotten a call from Gerardo “Tata” Martino, his coach at Atlanta United, inviting him to join the project he was leading at Inter Miami. And the more Gressel thought about it, even the prospect of a New England homecoming couldn’t quite match the allure of working side by side with the legendary Lionel Messi and his old friends Luis Suárez, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.

“I just told my wife, honestly, this is too good of an opportunity for me,” said Gressel, “to propel and try also to get this league to a point, and really to leave my mark as an American here that has played his whole career within MLS, to take. And obviously, from my personal experience to play with these guys, this is incredible.

“I tried to just balance and weigh it out and it was something that yeah, pretty quickly then I realized, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for only so many people in this world, and I have to take it. And I would probably regret not doing that, and my wife knew that I would hold a grudge against her,” he deadpanned.

“But she was pretty quickly on board as well.”

Julian Gressel - Inter Miami - cross ball

Playing with an icon

It didn’t take long for the scale of his new teammates’ stardom to hit home. When the Herons touched down in El Salvador, the first stop on their unusual round-the-world preseason tour in January, it felt like an entire country had shuddered to a halt, inundated by a torrent of soccer lovers clad in Inter Miami’s pink shirts, the blaugrana of FC Barcelona and striped Argentina jerseys bearing Messi’s name and number.

“We go to El Salvador and the whole country is upside down,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh my Lord, this is incredible.’ Seeing people at 2 am out in front of the hotel, thousands of people, and the next day before the game, going there just to get a glimpse, and that's really all they might get, just a little glimpse of Leo. … The passion and the feelings that they invoke in people and they create with what they do on the field, what they've done on the field over the course of their careers, is incredible.”

He quickly developed an up-close understanding of why that’s the case. Messi’s sublime technique and vision have led observers to describe him in extraterrestrial terms. One of the reasons Miami tend to look so dynamic with the Argentine on the pitch is that his teammates can test defenders with movements that less exceptional players simply can’t pick out.

“I would be kind of drifting out wide as a midfielder and make a run into the box, and there's no way he could have seen me, really, make the run,” Gressel said, harking back to those early days in preseason. “And he gets the ball from Jordi and just one-times the ball over the defense, just like a one-time curler around, like an early cross type of thing.

“I had stopped my run because I didn't think it was going to come, and I was so surprised that he recognized that run that I started probably like two or three seconds earlier as he kind of drifted across … now I don't stop running anymore when he gets the ball, because I believe that he can pick out any pass in the field when he's there.”

Julian Gressel - Inter Miami - open field

Global spotlight

Since his arrival in MLS, some of the most incisive analyses have come from the mouths of opposing coaches charged with trying to limit Messi’s influence on matches, with fairly limited rates of success thus far. Gressel is sympathetic to their plight.

“You hear it and you see it all the time, where he walks quite a bit, obviously, when we’re in possession and he sometimes even stands still, but his head is always moving,” said Gressel. “His head is always picking up information. And he always calculates and he always sees plays that haven't even happened yet, or has different options in his head of what is happening at different times.

“Those things that are just stunning, stunning to see that every day in training when we train and even more so incredible when we're on the field in the game.”

Gressel has dwelled in blindingly bright spotlights before. He’s tasted euphoric hype. He was a surprise star of the Atlanta sides that charmed their city – and changed MLS’s own perception of what was possible – with one of the most explosive attacks in league history, packing Mercedes-Benz Stadium with record-breaking crowds and hoisting the 2018 MLS Cup and 2019 US Open Cup.

The Messi-to-Miami phenomenon is on a different level, though.

“Oh, it's a lot bigger, because it's more global,” he said. “In Atlanta it was more localized just in Atlanta and within MLS … because the hype was so much about the team and about the club itself and not so much about specific individuals, right?

“Really, anybody you ask knows Messi, it doesn't matter if you know about soccer or not. I feel like anybody who you ask knows him, and that's something incredible.”

Here Gressel chuckled a bit as he reflected for a moment on working alongside a household name.

“Sometimes it's so eye-opening, still, to think about that blatant fact of me being his teammate,” he said. “It’s just so unreal at times.”

Julian Gressel - Inter Miami - chases ball

Good pressure

He soon got another reminder of the GOAT’s universal appeal when the requests for IMCF merchandise started to pour in from friends and family. Gressel grew up in the small Bavarian town of Neustadt an der Aisch, where it seems South Florida’s MLS side is establishing a foothold thanks to its native son.

He sounds relieved to reveal that most of the asks are for “Gressel” shirts rather than the best-selling “Messi” version, even if those bearing his name have to be custom-printed at the Florida Blue Training Center.

“From Germany, the requests are really high. Everybody that knows me wants a jersey now all of a sudden,” Gressel joked. “There's only 10,000 people that live there. Now 500 of them have a pink jersey.”

The quality and reputation of Miami’s stars, and the towering ambitions of ownership that their presence represents, can be a double-edged sword. Gressel says he “absolutely” feels heightened pressure to perform at IMCF, with just about every aspect of life at the club pressurized in ways that set it apart from the norm.

“We're not here to make the playoffs, like some of the teams maybe in MLS do,” he added. “I've been on teams like that before, and I'll tell you what, I'd much rather have the pressure of winning every trophy and winning every game than going away for an away game and saying, ‘Ah, let's see if we can tie today. That would be a good point, and it'll be a good year if we can get into the playoffs.’

“For me, that was never good enough. I always hated that type of mentality for a club to have. So for me, to have the ambition and the pressure, I embrace that more and I like that more. But it's also difficult to handle. There's a lot of eyes on us, a lot of media requests, a lot of media reporters. Everything will be scrutinized, negative things you do, but also positive things will also be handled differently and you stick out more. So there's a little bit more extremes to both sides.”

The irony of Messi Mania is that the player at the eye of that storm has never particularly loved the trappings of megacelebrity in and of themselves. Gressel has discovered that he, and Miami’s “Fab Four” in general, are not really Hollywood types.

They congregated at IMCF to be together again, to help push a fledgling organization to unprecedented heights, but most of all, to compete.

“It sometimes seems like he doesn't really want all of it. He just wants to play. He wants to hang out with his friends and be around his teammates and play soccer,” said Gressel of Messi. “Obviously that's what he does really, really well. That's why he has touched so many lives and has impacted so many people with that.

“But yeah, he's a normal guy, and that's why he made me feel super comfortable right away from the start, which is not so easy. You have a lot of thoughts going through your head, you know, before meeting him and meeting those other guys. All of them, really, are awesome dudes, just guys that joke around, guys that you can make jokes with and you can have fun with … regular teammates, guys that are just part of the group.”

Julian Gressel - Inter Miami - thumbs up

Managing adversity

Gressel has been taking Spanish lessons to help better connect with them – he’s found Alba’s Spanish lilt to be tougher to parse than Messi’s Rioplatense accent – while the GOAT in turn has been working on his English; Busquets already speaks the language well. That cultural exchange led Gressel to an unexpected moment, as he recently narrated in his podcast, PLAYER / MANAGER: when Messi asked him to deliver the final pregame message to the team moments before kickoff of a recent match.

Gressel kept it short and sweet, then realized he could also express it in the primary language of many of his colleagues.

“I just felt like we needed a quick start and an easy start. So I said it in English and then I was like, I can say this in Spanish, so I just kind of said it,” he said. “It was just about winning the first five minutes and then we'll win the game, in a sense. Maybe it was even wrong in Spanish, which I didn't even care about.

“And that's also great, where I have the opportunity or the freedom to speak and when I say something in Spanish, they probably appreciate it, even though it might be wrong. That's how comfortable I am already within this club, how comfortable they make me feel, and I certainly didn't hesitate in the moment. It was kind of cool. And then after the game, we joked about it a little bit with them. So it was also quite nice.”

Miami’s icons are also habitual winners, with dozens of major trophies on their collective resume and a profound distaste for losing of any kind. Last month’s 4-0 thumping at the hands of the New York Red Bulls on a rain-soaked afternoon in New Jersey rankled badly, even with an asterisk applied in the form of Messi’s ongoing absence with a hamstring problem.

“They’re pissed, they're annoyed and they're upset,” said Gressel. “It really is all fun and good when times are good. So we’ve all got to do the part on the field to obviously earn that, and to be like that, because if it's not going right on the field, they sense that … after whatever they've achieved throughout their career, all the things they've done, to still have that in them, I guess it's probably second nature but to still have that in them here while playing together in Miami, it's something incredible to me.”

Julian Gressel - Inter Miami - controls ball

An even more galling setback unfolded at Chase Stadium on Wednesday night in the first leg of their Concacaf Champions Cup quarterfinal series vs. CF Monterrey, with Messi’s hamstring again forcing him to watch from the sideline in street clothes.

Young homegrown David Ruiz picked up two yellow cards in the second half and Miami let a 1-0 lead slip through their fingers as the Liga MX giants snatched two late goals, the winner arriving minutes from full time after key midfielder Diego Gómez made an uncharacteristic, and costly, turnover in his own penalty box.

Martino & Co. have made clear how much they prioritize CCC, and the ticket to the Club World Cup it offers. Now, with or without Messi, the Herons will have to dig deeper than they have up to this point to dig out a second-leg win – far from home, at high altitude, in the imposing confines of Estadio BBVA.

“If we're losing, if we're behind, if we're struggling, then it's like there's a different gear that kicks in, and different mentality as well,” said Gressel of the Fab Four.

That figures to make next week’s clash in Mexico – where more of those teeming crowds of devoted fans will surely greet them – the weightiest milestone to date on Inter Miami’s wild ride.

Julian Gressel - Inter Miami - headphones