ATLANTA – Atlanta United’s veterans have learned how to cut right to the heart of the matter over the course of their careers.
“He scored a goal. He had an assist. He got the [Golden Spike]. He hugged Arthur [Blank]. It was a good night."
Michael Parkhurst, out of Atlanta’s 18-man gameday roster for the first time all season, was even more succinct:
Rookie of the Year #ATLUTD— Michael Parkhurst (@MFparkhurst) September 27, 2017
And like his veteran captain Parkhurst, who earned MLS Rookie of the Year honors in 2003, Atlanta United manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino firmly believes Gressel has been the best rookie in MLS this season.
“He totally deserves it,” Martino said through a translator after the game. “I thought he played an excellent game tonight. Not just by looking at what he did on the field, but you have to understand what we ask of him as a coaching staff. Today, he did everything exactly how we asked him. I think looking at all of the players who are in their [first pro season] that he definitely deserves the award.”
Gressel’s strong performance in a playoff-clinching victory over Philadelphia – in which he faced off against Jack Elliott, another contender for the award -- will only stoke the “Gresselmania” surrounding the young German’s candidacy. Midway through the first half, Gressel dribbled through the heart of the Union defense and deftly finished with the outside of his right foot into the bottom corner to earn his fourth goal of the season.
A few minutes later, Gressel assisted Josef Martinez's goal. It was Gressel’s ninth assist on the season, putting him in second place all-time for MLS rookies, behind only Clint Mathis' 10 in 1998.
“It would be kind of cool I think,” Gressel said about the possibility of passing Mathis for the record. “It’s just another statistic out there. I’m happy to help the team in those kinds of ways and I’ll continue to try and do that and if it turns out to be a record in the end, then so be it, I’ll be happy with that.”
More importantly for Atlanta, Gressel is once again taking on a starting role, this time in place of playmaker Miguel Almiron, who will be out for at least three weeks with a hamstring injury.
The team's respect for Almiron was on full display Wednesday night. When Martinez scored his 18th goal of the season, he ran to the sidelines to grab an Almiron jersey to pay homage to his injured teammate.
“I kind-of knew what Tata wanted from me in that role,” said Gressel about taking over for Almiron. “Obviously, I’ve been watching Miguel a lot over there. Obviously, I try to pick up on somethings that he does well.”
Looking ahead, Gressel says he and his teammates are focused on securing a second-seed in the Eastern Conference now that they’ve become only the fourth expansion team in MLS history to make the playoffs.
“We never really saw ourselves as a team like ‘Let’s just see where it goes,’” he said. “From the first day on, we wanted to be in the playoffs. I think that shows the determination and togetherness that we have all towards that one goal that came true. We’ll see where we can go from here, maybe talking a little more records for expansion teams in the near future."