Julian Gressel - Atlanta United - Takes a selfie with fans

Not to overreact, but if you support Atlanta United things are a bit chaotic right now.

Pieces of the framework that originally made Atlanta United feel steady have been pulled away. And now Atlanta fans, who believe soccer began in 2017 (beat you to it, comments section), are having to embrace unfamiliar faces in a way they haven’t been forced to since the inaugural season. As objectively funny as that is for those who have dealt with the roster turnover in MLS many times over, the loss of multiple fan favorites has to inspire some empathy. Except maybe not for people in New York, Orlando, Toronto, Seattle, Portl...ok, you know what, just try and work with me here. 

The season ended and Darlington Nagbe left first. Then, two weeks ago, center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez went to Club Tijuana. And now you have the departure of Julian Gressel to D.C. United. Losing three hugely popular players in one offseason is a brutal run for any team. Throw in the fact that Gonzalez Pirez and Gressel started the first match in team history and never gave up those starting spots — the pair were two and one, respectively, in appearances since the team began — and it’s a body shot that leads into a direct knock to the head.

But beyond simply being the final blow in a somewhat unexpected, somewhat dreaded exodus, Gressel’s departure, in particular, hurts a whole helluva lot for folks in Atlanta. 

Despite being just three years removed from the first season, there’s still a lot of nostalgia involved with the 2017 team. Especially anyone who played that first night in Bobby Dodd Stadium. A sellout crowd that stood for the entirety of the game, vibrant soccer, the gorgeous backdrop of the Atlanta skyline and confirmation that the sport just might work in Atlanta after all have conspired to make people discuss Ty Mears with some reverence years on. 

Gressel started in a holding midfield role that night and inspired many people to say, “Wait, who the hell is Julian Gressel?” No one knew much about him other than his status as one of the first SuperDraft picks in team history. But then he became ingrained into Atlanta. Not just with the team, but with the city.

In addition to starting nearly every match possible at multiple positions, he was accessible to fans in a way that other players weren’t. He interacted with fans on social media, showed up to meet and greets at every opportunity, jumped on podcasts, took Cameo requests and generally lived life in Atlanta. Large chunks of the fanbase seem to have an “I saw/met Gressel” story, although who knows how many of them are actually true.

Anyway, I saw Julian at a stoplight once. I didn’t wave or anything. It would have been weird. I did notice his car, though. A really nice ride. And I felt happy he had it. Folks in Atlanta talked so much about how undervalued he was, I half-expected him to roll up in a 1994 Ford Fiesta. But that’s partly why he became so appreciated. Atlanta fans knew they were getting far more than the mean from a SuperDraft pick. 

The chances he created at an elite level — he tied for the league lead in big chances created last season — and a collection of timely goals helped develop a connection. That connection led to the “Gresselmania” nickname. Which furthered the connection. Which led to the Gressel moment that will stick with Atlanta fans most: Julian, at full-speed, sprinting towards the Supporters’ Section with MLS Cup raised above his head before the rest of the team could even realize where the trophy went.

All this means that the part of Atlanta fans mourning his exit is wrestling with the other part that’s happy to see him get his financially. And then there’s the part that knows he’s still very much going to be around. 

I recently ended a relationship (I’m fine!). A few days after, I walked into my favorite coffee shop to see them in the very first booth. On a date. By virtue of being in D.C., Julian Gressel is now contractually obligated at least twice a year to be in the front booth at the coffee shop with someone else. It’s what makes things that much worse for Atlanta fans. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez left their orbit, Gressel stayed in the same neighborhood. 

From a personal standpoint, it’s tough for fans to watch Gressel go. From a production standpoint, it’s tough for fans to understand how he’ll be replaced. From an Eastern Conference standpoint, it’s tough to see another team get better. It means that people in Atlanta are understandably and vocally disappointed. And that it may be a while before the new pieces that come in are accepted in remotely the same way. 

But from the standpoint of a fan base that will continue to see Gressel as one of their own, I think they just hope he’s happy.