SPRINGFIELD, Va. — If you were going to minimize D.C. United’s move to seize upon Julian Gressel’s contract impasse with Atlanta United and trade for the talented provider, you might do so by suggesting Gressel’s production rate owed partly to his star-studded cast of teammates.
Sure, his 35 assists and 15 goals over three seasons put him in elite territory among wide midfielders. But those numbers may be inflated by playing three seasons behind Josef Martinez, the most efficient striker over multiple seasons in MLS history, two seasons with now-Newcastle United attacking midfielder Miguel Almiron, and so on. That’s where Gressel and his new team would quibble with you.
“I know that there’s a lot of talk about Josef made me look a lot better … or I had some more assists because of him,” Gressel said Thursday after his first practice with D.C., following Tuesday’s blockbuster trade to send the Atlanta fan favorite northbound. “But I also think it goes the other way. I helped him a lot, where maybe he wouldn’t have scored some goals if it wasn’t for me.”
In shipping at a minimum of $750,000 of Targeted Allocation Monday to Atlanta for Gressel and negotiating a new contract with the German-born 26-year-old worth a reported pay raise of about 500 percent, D.C. are betting he’s right.
And although the star power of Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta is gone, Gressel has proven targets on his new team. Ola Kamara has at least 14 goals in each of his three full MLS seasons — his last while managing the unenviable task of sharing the striking spotlight with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Yamil Asad and Paul Arriola are likely both capable of double-digit goals seasons with better finishing and fortune. Edison Flores is a proven Liga MX dual threat.
Still, there will certainly be more external expectations on Gressel at Audi Field than at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That’s fine with him.
“I always wanted to be a guy that steps in,” said Gressel, who was a contract bargain mainly because he emerged from the college ranks via the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. “Why have that price tag dictate who you are? I never saw myself that way. That doesn’t really change much here. I always want to be that guy that will be relied upon to produce. I expect that out of myself before, and I’m going to expect it out of me in the future.”
In Ben Olsen, Gressel finds a manager who has done his best work with attackers who might have reason to prove a point to their previous clubs. It was true of Fabian Espindola in 2014, Patrick Mullins in 2016 and even Wayne Rooney in 2018.
“When I was a player, if someone would’ve let me go, I would’ve wanted to make sure I stayed at the level and increased my productivity, and showed that I wasn’t just on a great team, and just an accent piece,” Olsen said. “I’m sure that’s in the back of his head. And that’s just fine with us.”
As for the fans Gressel leaves behind, he had nothing but kind words for them. And he reminded them that, although Atlanta may not have valued his services as much as D.C., they treated him well in letting him seek an exit.
“The fans are very young still in Atlanta and the whole club is, where they’re obviously just noticing, this year especially, there’s a lot of key guys leaving,” Gressel said. “The big thing is, the crest on the front is always bigger than what’s on the back. That’s something they’ll obviously learn a little bit: Atlanta United as a whole will always be there for them.
"Players will move on for different reasons. I’m very thankful for the time I had there, but ... I understood this move and I hope that fans understand it, with maybe a little distance. Maybe not right away.”