MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Vancouver Whitecaps: Julian Gressel trade gives them the "best wingback" in MLS

With news breaking minutes after sunrise in the Pacific Northwest, the start to Friday morning for Vancouver Whitecaps FC center forwards Brian White and Lucas Cavallini was a good one. The first texts they saw offered the jolt of a pleasant surprise.

The Whitecaps had traded for wingback Julian Gressel from D.C. United, bringing one of the league’s best chance creators and crossers to their locker room. He would soon be supplying service for a new team, for them.

D.C. United recently hired head coach Wayne Rooney, who will implement a new formation and playing style while also looking to make changes to the roster. They were open to the possibility of moving Gressel. Vancouver hoped to add a right wingback to the group during the MLS Secondary Transfer Window, but wanted to be picky.

The timing worked out perfectly, with the Whitecaps sending up to $900,000 in General Allocation Money to the Black-and-Red for the 28-year-old German.

“It’s an exciting day with Julian here today,” Vancouver CEO and sporting director Axel Schuster told media Tuesday. “I always say we want to sign the right one, not the first one. … It wasn’t difficult to identify the player who is the best wingback in the league.”

Elite chance-creation

Gressel broke through with Atlanta United in 2017 as a previously little-known SuperDraft selection out of Providence College. His connection with star striker Josef Martinez became among the most fruitful in the league before a trade to D.C. ahead of the 2020 campaign.

Over 171 regular-season appearances, he's recorded 19 goals and 58 assists, predominantly playing as a wingback, easily making him the most productive at the position in terms of goal involvements. He’s had double-digit assists in three of five full seasons in MLS and is well on his way to doing so again this year with seven helpers already.

“I hope and I think he will be a big piece for the team, where he will shine again and continue to be one of the very important players in this league,” head coach Vanni Sartini said.

Gressel’s creative qualities stand up well not just against his own position, but any player across MLS.

In 2021, Gressel was third in the league in chances created, behind only star No. 10s Carles Gil (New England Revolution) and Emanuel Reynoso (Minnesota United FC), and was second in expected assists. He is expected to fit in perfectly in the Whitecaps’ three-at-the-back system, freeing him up to get forward and provide balls into White and Cavallini, two traditional forwards who live off service.

“I mean, I’d rather have two assists than one goal because it means we scored twice,” Gressel said. “I’m a team guy first and want to win. If that means my role is to assist more, that’s fine. If my role is to play more defensive and have other guys go forward, that’s fine. I’m here to win games, win trophies.”

Gressel will have his first chance at that in some of his first minutes north of the border, as Vancouver host Toronto FC in the 2022 Canadian Championship final on July 26.

“I’m really excited to be at a club that values me and wants me,” Gressel said. “I’m happy to be here. The trade is done, I’m excited for what’s to come and how I can make an impact on this team. … I appreciate this club believing in me.”

That last line has been a focus since the trade. Gressel, on his podcast co-hosted with Chicago Fire FC attacker Fabian Herbers, was honest about his negative feelings towards how the trade was handled by D.C. United. He wasn’t notified until minutes before it became public and Vancouver weren’t granted permission to talk to him until after the news was out.

"I don’t like the way it happened,” Gressel said on the podcast. “I was completely kept in the dark. I get told I’m not a D.C. United player anymore while wearing their training clothes. … I really hope no other player has to feel that."

Since he had the time to process the news with his young family, and look through the windshield rather than the rearview, Gressel has become more and more excited about his new club.

“As the hours went on, thinking about it and having more conversations with these guys here and my family, the longer it went on, the more I got excited,” Gressel said, "to come to a club that values me, to be on this adventure with my family.”

Long-term stay?

Gressel is the latest addition to the Whitecaps' core that has been added over the last calendar year. DP chance-creator Ryan Gauld and White came last summer, as well as highly-rated youngster Pedro Vite; defender Tristan Blackmon was traded for this winter and DP midfielder Andres Cubas signed this spring.

“We want to build this franchise step by step, in a sustainable way,” Schuster said. “To do that is to not plan to give the players away soon when you get the main pieces together."

Vancouver will be the third team Gressel represents in MLS. He is under contract through the end of the season with a club option for 2023, but the Whitecaps’ hope is this is a long-term partnership.

Schuster joked about having a new contract ready.

“As soon as we convince him how nice British Columbia is," Schuster said with a smile as he peered at Gressel, "we can speak about a five-year deal.”