Julian Gressel - Kevin Kratz - smiling
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Stejskal: Among ATLUTD's parade of stars, Julian Gressel proves he belongs

He might not have the talent of Josef Martinez or Miguel Almiron, the price tag of Ezequiel Barco or the pedigree of Brad Guzan, Michael Parkhurst, Darlington Nagbe or Tito Villalba.

But Julian Gressel is just about as important to Atlanta United as any of his higher-profile, much more highly-paid teammates.

The 2017 MLS Rookie of the Year didn’t arrive in Atlanta with much fanfare (he wasn’t even the club’s first SuperDraft pick; he went six spots after No. 2 overall selection Miles Robinson). Yet he’s emerged over the last two years as one of the most valuable pieces for the Five Stripes.

“He’s massively important,” Parkhurst told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s really impressive given the money that we’ve spent and the amount of players that we’ve brought in, especially on the attacking side of the ball, that a college draftee from last year has played his way into the team and has played so well now for almost two years that you can’t take him out of the lineup. Even when everyone’s healthy and there’s tough lineup choices to be made, he’s played so well and is so important to the team, I don’t think you can take him off the field. That’s a massive credit to him.”

Capable of playing as a center midfielder, right winger, right back or right wingback, the 24-year-old German is versatile, skillful and productive. Though he’s never had a full-time position in Atlanta (he’s started at five different positions in 2018 and in three different spots last year), he’s tied for the team lead with 14 assists this season and is tied for seventh in the league with 23 assists since the start of 2017. He added to his total in the playoffs, assisting on Franco Escobar's series-winning goal in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship against the New York Red Bulls.

Those are good numbers for any player. For one who, according to the MLS Players Association, is making just $111,250 this season, they’re out of this world. Since the start of 2017, Gressel has more assists than Designated Players Sebastian GiovincoAlbert Rusnak and Ignacio Piatti, among others.

Some of that has to do with the record-setting scoring ability of Martinez and the gravitational pull Almiron has on opposing defenders, but Gressel does plenty of solid work himself. He’s smart with his runs forward and efficient when he gets into dangerous positions. In addition to his impressive assist totals, he was third in MLS this season with 27 successful crosses from open play and tied for fourth in the league with 15 big chances created, per Opta.

The long way to MLS

Gressel on draft day | USA Today Sports Images

None of this has ever looked all that likely for Gressel, who took a somewhat unique route to the league. He split his youth career between 2. Bundesliga club Greuther Furth and lower-division German side Quelle Furth, then spent two seasons playing in regional men’s leagues in the bottom rungs of the German system. With a pro contract looking unlikely, he turned to the U.S. in 2013, accepting a scholarship offer to play at Providence College. He was a star in his four years with the Friars, but, at 23, was one of the older players in the 2017 SuperDraft. Given his age, some had doubts about his ceiling.

Gressel has more than answered those questions. He won a starting role out of the gate in 2017 and cruised to the Rookie of the Year award with five goals and nine assists in 24 starts and 32 appearances, most of which came as a central midfielder. The success was a bit of a surprise to most around the league, Gressel included.

“I don’t think anybody can expect that coming out of the draft. You never really know where you stand, and I mean I had no idea, really, what to expect, to be honest with you,” he said. “I knew I was capable of giving it my best and being a guy that could bring it every day and then make the coach think about playing me or not. But obviously the way it’s taken off, and me becoming kind of a constant, is something that I don’t think I would’ve expected at all, to be honest.”

Despite his solid first season, Gressel entered 2018 needing to prove himself once more. Atlanta’s offseason acquisitions of Barco and Nagbe appeared to edge him out of the midfield. He played as a right wingback when head coach Tata Martino began experimenting with a 3-5-2 in training in the weeks after Atlanta’s playoff loss to Columbus last fall, but the club’s December move for right back Franco Escobar, who, according to the MLSPA, makes more than twice Gressel’s salary, meant there were no guarantees at that spot, either.

The deals left Gressel in a bit of an awkward place. On the one hand, he was excited that the moves gave Atlanta a better shot at becoming a championship team. On the other, he understood that they’d mean a move from the center midfield spot that Martino sees as his best, and another serious fight for playing time.

As he did in his rookie season, Gressel responded once again this year. He’s been a constant for Atlanta throughout their stellar season, recording four goals and 14 assists while starting 33 of their 34 league matches and all four Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoff matches. During Atlanta's run to MLS Cup, Gressel has lined up in the midfield three alongside Darlington Nagbe and Eric Remedi in Martino's 5-3-2 formation.

What lies ahead?

Gressel poses with fans after Saturday's man-of-the-match outing | USA Today Sports Images

His low cost, positional flexibility and, above all, solid play have made him an incredibly valuable piece for Atlanta, who are searching for the first trophy on Saturday against the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup final (8 pm ET | FOX, UniMás, TSN, TVAS). With two years left on his rookie deal, he may stay that way for a while. He said that the club have not yet opened discussions about a new contract, though he said he’s not overly worried about the status of his deal.

It could become a talking point this winter, however. Gressel said that playing in Europe, preferably Germany, is an eventual goal of his. Almiron and Martinez generate much more public transfer interest, but Gressel said that “a couple” of European clubs have begun looking at him. If he continues with his current trajectory, it’s not hard to imagine that interest increasing.

“I think that being from Germany, I would assume that his goal would be to play in the Bundesliga someday and I think he’s capable of it,” said Parkhurst, who spent four years in Denmark and one season in the Bundesliga earlier in his career. “He’s got the workrate, he’s got the mentality, he’s got the skill, he’s a super good person off the field, he’s willing to do the work.

“I don’t know what his ceiling is, but it’s high. I think if he keeps developing, whether he stays here or if he goes eventually, he’s destined for big things because what he’s done in a year and a half, coming into a big team, big spending and big players on the field and the way he’s produced, I honestly think he could probably play in just about every country in the world.”

Gressel didn’t say that outright, but you get the sense he feels the same way. The national perception of him may not yet match his actual worth to Atlanta, but he knows just how important he is to the Five Stripes. In his mind, he’s not an underdog, but an equal, someone who wants to be thought of in the same category as Almiron, Martinez or any of the other biggest stars in MLS.

“I don’t really see myself as any lesser. I still feel like I have that perception, I get it from the outside here and there maybe, not from opposite coaches, but maybe fans or other people because I’m still the drafted guy that only makes a little bit comparatively,” Gressel said.

“But for me, I don’t see myself as that. I think I see myself as equal as those guys. I want to see myself there because I think I’ve proven that I do belong in that category. That’s just my mentality. I’m not like, ‘Oh, no, no, none of that.’ I’m part of that team, I’m part of those stars, hopefully. Not to get ahead of myself or anything, but it’s just kind of, I want to be measured with them and alongside them and not seen as any lesser.”

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