If you spend any amount of time in the more analytical (and pedantic) quarters of our beautiful game, odds are you’ll hear a lot about “end product.”
With scoring relatively rare in soccer compared to other sports, and aesthetics and ideas so influential in all the stuff that happens in between, the term has become shorthand for the critical skillset that converts positive play into goals and assists.
In MLS, I reckon no one has delivered more end product for less money over the past few years than Julian Gressel. And that, above all, is what Atlanta Unitedelected to trade away to D.C. United on Tuesday, in exchange for a package of allocation money that could rise beyond $1 million, after failing to reach agreement with the player on a new contract.
Gressel has maintained a steady clip over his three years in the league, tabbing 15 goals and 35 assists over 98 regular-season matches (that’s 0.585 goals + assists per 90 minutes) and chipping in another 2g/2a in the playoffs.
As I wrote when he notched his 25th assist back in March, this is a Designated Player-level rate of reliable service, and he’s done it all on a basic, lunchpail, first-pro-deal-type rookie contract, and while manning several tactical roles across multiple different formations.
It’s hard to think of what else the German-American could have done to prove his worth to the Five Stripes, especially given that all he cost them was a mere SuperDraft pick, that acquisition mechanism that’s become so unfashionable lately. As ATLUTD watcher and savvy stats head @TiotalFootball noted towards the end of last season:
- “Julian Gressel has put up two seasons in a row now of historically elite open-play goal service from out wide and deserves a big pay day”
- “Consider that only three players during this time have assisted 11 open-play goals in a season multiple times: Michael Barrios, Landon Donovan and Julian Gressel.”
That’s pretty elite company!
Washington Post reporter Steve Goff broke the news of the trade, and if his reporting holds true, Gressel and D.C. are also on track to broker a new contract that would provide a five-fold pay raise or thereabouts. That puts him in the TAM neighborhood, and it’s probably still not a bad investment for the Black-and-Red given that the total costs of acquiring a player from overseas with a comparable track record could easily run into seven figures.
The main cautionary note here is the explosive nature of Atlanta’s attack over most of Gressel’s time there. With a ruthless finisher like Josef Martinez up top, a murderers’ row of complementary talent in the XI and a rollicking uptempo style – particularly under former coach Tata Martino – it could easily be argued that “Gresselmania” took hold in an inflationary statistical environment.
It’s a slightly different picture in Washington, where Gressel slots into a team with a bit less star power but plenty of attacking depth all of a sudden. He could find himself playing a utility role just like in the ATL, with the prospect of minutes in wide and central midfield, wingback and fullback.
That said, my conversations with people around D.C. lead me to believe they value his attacking traits above all. And while Ola Kamara’s numbers aren’t quite as gaudy as Josef’s, he’s been a very efficient finisher over his MLS career and could feast on Gressel's pinpoint deliveries.
As for Atlanta, if they’re not prepared to reward a loyal soldier and fan favorite with wages commensurate with his productivity, they’ll have to either shell out for a replacement from abroad or goose new contributions from someone already in the fold. It’s certainly not fair to expect Brooks Lennon to step into Gressel’s shoes; they’re different players, though this winter’s de facto swap does offer a bit of insight into ATLUTD coach Frank de Boer’s tactical thinking for 2020.
On Tuesday Carlos Bocanegra admitted that the club are aware of the risk this trade entails, and it’s not just empty words when he says that this move also has Gressel’s interests in mind. Remember that he’s married to an American and is on track to become US national team-eligible in time for the next World Cup — but only if he continues to live and work in the United States.
So time will tell on this transaction, and whether the Five Stripes can fill this hole in their squad quickly and efficiently. Gressel’s end product may become a tad bit less prolific in the capital city, but I expect his value to remain obvious.