Julian Gressel is fast becoming the steal of the 2017 SuperDraft. The eighth pick overall, and Atlanta United’s second pick, Gressel put in another quality performance for Atlanta United on Saturday night as a starting defensive midfielder. This time, he paired perfectly with Carlos Carmona in the team's 4-0 home victory against the Chicago Fire.
A 23-year-old rookie out of Providence College, Gressel has now started all three of Atlanta's matches to date and played a total of 243 minutes. That includes a full 90 last week against Minnesota United -- but his performance against the Fire was perhaps his best yet.
Leading up to the match, it wasn’t clear which pairing — Gressel and Carmona for Atlanta or Dax McCarty and Juninho for Chicago — would dominate the center of the field and dictate play. By the end, it was obvious Atlanta had won the battle, thanks in large part to Gressel’s ability to get forward and join the attack.
“I see the space and try to exploit it,” he said after the match, adding that his main duty is defend as drop deep to win the ball and play it out of the back. “It’s a mix of things.”
In the fourth minute, Hector Villalba dribbled through the Fire back line and laid it off to Gressel, who put in a pass across the face of goal. The ball deflected off Chicago defender Brandon Vincent and went past goalkeeper Jorge Bava for an own goal.
“It was a tight angle and the keeper was in a good position, so I figured I would play it in and it worked out,” said Gressel.
A short time later, Gressel put Josef Martinez through behind the last defender, Johan Kappelhof, who took down Martinez and earned a straight red card. The ejection left the Fire playing a man down for most of the match.
Gressel’s outsized impact this season is made even more impressive when you consider he’s not just an MLS rookie, but he’s also playing ahead of two veterans, Jeff Larentowicz and Chris McCann. The latter two both boast 300-plus professional career appearances.
Gressel said he’s not surprised by his early success or the trust manager Tata Martino has put in him.
“I know what I can do,” he said. “I know that I can be out there and I think I deserve it.”
Martino also praised Gressel after the win against the Fire.
“The first time we saw Julian was at the draft, and we thought he was a very good player,” he said. “He understands the concepts of the game really well, he’s dynamic, he’s good on the ball, and he’s been very important for us.”
Born in Neustadt an der Aisch, Germany, a small German town near Nuremberg in Bavaria, Gressel grew up playing in the German youth system. He played for several clubs, including TSV Neustadt/Aisch and FC Eintracht Bamberg, notching plenty of assists along the way.
He came to the U.S. to play at Providence College, where he was a four-year starter. In 83 career appearances, he tallied 30 goals and 26 assists, good enough to earn him Big East Co-Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2016.
Although he’s confident in his abilities, Gressel admits that as a first-year professional, he still has much to learn.
“Obviously, it’s great that [Martino] trusts me with the starting role,” he added. “I’m still trying to learn a lot every day and just get better.”