Unassuming Julian Gressel takes star turn as Atlanta clinch playoff bye

What's a position, really?

For Atlanta United 24-year-old Julian Gressel, apparently nothing but a way onto the field. The versatile German international – winger, wingback, midfielder, etc. – has proven to be of immense value to Tata Martino’s team since being drafted No. 8 overall out of Providence in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft.

Gressel currently ranks second in MLS with 14 assists this season, and punctuated a strong season with a superb volleyed strike Saturday to help Atlanta United to a 2-0 victory over Real Salt Lake. The Five Stripes, who lead the Supporters' Shield race, clinched a Knockout Round bye when Montreal drew NYCFC, 1-1, shortly afterward.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Gressel’s campaign is how ever-present he’s been in Tata Martino’s star-laden team. Gressel has managed to play a part in all but two of Atlanta United’s league matches over the past two seasons. This year, he’s started all 30 league games, carving out a niche as a wingback while filling in at various positions as needed.

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“He's done it all,” said veteran midfielder Jeff Larentowicz. “I think honestly from the moment he came in last year, you knew there was something about him, that he was a special player.”

“Even when he's played in other spots, it's a different kind of effectiveness, but he's still effective. He might not be setting up as many goals when he's playing as a No. 8 but he's still doing the job effectively. His play on the wing is outstanding. The way he finds the spaces and then his quality on the ball into the box is great. Tonight was something special with his goal – another level.”

Ask around the Atlanta United locker room and you will hear a common refrain among players about not just Gressel's own quality and determination, but the influence that his manager has had during their two years together in Atlanta.

“He's just set a really high standard for me ever since I came in,” Gressel said of Martino, who refused to take any credit. “He didn't categorize me as a rookie. I like that. Any time the manager has high standards of you, you hold yourself more accountable as well and to a higher standard even more. That's just the kind of person I am. I've learned so much from him and I've been very fortunate to have him as a mentor and my coach.”

With another big night behind him, and Atlanta in position to seal the Shield race with an away victory next Sunday, Gressel and the club are riding high.

“Any player playing at that level with that sort of confidence is going to help the team,” said Larentowicz. “He seems like he's in the middle of everything good for Atlanta United when he's on the field.”