The first time Julian Gressel met his “personal idol” Bastian Schweinsteiger, the Atlanta United midfielder was a wide-eyed 10-year-old kid attending a Bayern Munich match with his grandfather. Schweinsteiger was injured that day, and the Gressels happened to see him in the stands.
Like most young diehard Bayern supporters, young Julian wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip by.
“I’m a very, very big Bayern Munich fan,” Gressel told MLSsoccer.com. “I just went up to him and [said] 'Hi,' like a little kid fan.”
Gressel, who was born in Germany, will meet Schweinsteiger again when the two midfielders face off in this summer’s rematch between Atlanta United and the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois. He knows when exactly the match is [June 10] thanks to his mother, who has told Gressel "about that date so many times.”
“My mom is very, very anxious about that game,” he said, adding that she might make the long journey from Germany to watch in person. "It’s going to be special for me, but I’m going to playing against him so I don’t want to be nice to him. I want to beat him.”
Gressel has every reason to be confident in a situation that might make others nervous. Despite being a rookie after being taken with the eighth overall pick in this year's MLS SuperDraft, Gressel has started all four of Atlanta's matches to date. He most recently went the full 90 in a tough 0-0 draw in Seattle on Friday night.
Atlanta head coach Tata Martino, who trusted Gressel enough to give him the keys to the center of the park, described the 23-year-old as “dynamic,” “good on the ball,” and someone who has “been very important to us.”
The transition from Providence College, where Gressel excelled for four years, to MLS has been relatively seamless for him, but he admitted that he has had to overcome challenges. The passes move a little faster in the professional game, mistakes are punished right away, and the margin of error is much smaller.
“I’ve had a good transition, but I’m still learning,” he said.
One reason Gressel has had early success is that he grew up playing in the same cutthroat Germany academy system that produced Schweinsteiger. Unlike Schweinsteiger, Gressel didn’t make it all the way through the gauntlet to the pro level, but the experience helped for him into the player he is today.
“It gave me a great foundation, a technical foundation and tactical foundation, of the game,” Gressel said.
Gressel seems to be equally appreciative of Schweinsteiger, who the youngster watched evolve over the years. He liked Schweinsteiger from the start, and remembers the 2006 World Cup, which was hosted in Germany, as the breakout moment for the veteran. Back then, Schweinsteiger was a young, creative winger that helped carry the country to an unexpected third-place finish under manager Jurgen Klinsmann.
Gressel is, however, most impressed by Schweinsteiger’s ability to evolve from a top Bundesliga winger into an elite central midfielder. It’s not an easy feat, as Gressel knows after having made a similar transition in college.
“It’s how he bosses the game, how he controls the tempo, how he takes his first touch,” said Gressel. “There’re so many things you can learn that I try to look at and try to do myself sometimes.”
Gressel may have modeled some of his own style of play after his idol’s, but that is not the only way Gressel emulates Schweinsteiger. Gressel also engages with fans, whether through social media, autograph sessions, or elsewhere, much like he Schweinsteiger did with Gressel more than a decade ago.
Gressel is himself becoming a fan favorite in Atlanta. He’s already got a nickname – “Gresselmania” – which he thinks is “cool” even though he doesn’t follow pro wrestling. His teammates have already given him some good-natured ribbing about the moniker.
“We were going onto the field to warm up in Seattle and it was pretty quiet,” he said. “And we walked out and somebody yells, ‘Gresselmania!’ Our whole team laughed [and] said, ‘Dude, you’re a freaking legend everywhere!’”
Fans even printed a limited run of “Gresselmania 24” shirts, which sold out quickly.
“Unfortunately I didn’t get to buy a t-shirt,” Gressel said. “But maybe I will once another one comes out?”