There’s a certain meme about Atlanta United’s new signing Jurgen Damm that made the rounds on Soccer Twitter a few years ago. It’s a bit harsh in some ways, because this is an extremely fast and hard-working winger we’re talking about, one with enough quality to earn a dozen caps for Mexico and fetch a reported transfer fee of nearly $10 million when he joined Tigres UANL in 2015.
But as satire often does, it also reveals something noteworthy about Damm, and why this looks like a timely change of scenery for him as well as both a challenge and opportunity for the Five Stripes.
“I've had conversations with Jurgen, I’ve had conversations with people around the situation and it's a good fit on a lot of different levels,” ESPN analyst Herculez Gomez told me on Wednesday. “Especially if you plan to use him as a wingback.
“He's a player that, under the right circumstances, has tons of quality, has intangibles that you rarely see in in Liga MX or in MLS. But it’s about putting it together, it's about having the confidence. He had some issues in Liga MX that were pretty much confidence issues.”
The 27-year-old made a splash in Liga MX when he got his chance as a teenager eight years ago, first at Estudiantes Tecos and later at Pachuca, showcasing a directness and dynamism that made him one of that league’s most eagerly-anticipated young talents. Here, it seemed, was an old-fashioned flying winger capable of racing in behind any defense, with a gravitational pull that could tilt the field in his direction.
In the ensuing years he didn’t quite round out his skillset the way El Tri fans would’ve hoped. Damm remained a bit too one-dimensional to become a locked-in starter for Tigres – mind you, that’s no easy task for anyone at one of the richest, deepest and most ambitious clubs in North America – and his international career stagnated for similar reasons.
But he still brings plenty of useful tools to the ATL, and as a free transfer, no less (save for the small fee paid to Houston for his Discovery Rights). If Frank de Boer and his staff can hone a few of the things that Damm does really well, they might just have a low-risk, high-reward success story on their hands. The key might just be in restoring the confidence of a player whose shortcomings have been mercilessly dissected by Mexican media and fans since he hit the big stage.
“When he's running on all cylinders, you won't see a faster player with the ability to bring the ball down into speed in the final third than him, with the ability to take advantage of that open space,” said Gomez. “It's about the finished product after that. That’s been very much what defined him in Liga MX, is that finished product. Can he put that good service in?
“We had him on our show [‘Ahora o Nunca’] a few weeks ago, and he said mentally it's affected him, where he knows that the fans, the pundits are going to talk about his crossing, how inaccurate he’s been at times, and it's affected him. So hopefully it's a chance where it's a fresh opportunity, to get to turn a new page, he gets to experience what it's like somewhere else, start anew.”
De Boer has shown a fondness for a three-man back line in Atlanta, usually in a 3-4-2-1 setup that works best with pace, range and verticality in the wide positions to complement Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco as dual playmakers.
It’s why they acquired Brooks Lennon from Real Salt Lake, and have tried out a range of options at the other wingback slot on the left side, among them Jake Mulraney, Laurence Wyke and Brek Shea (who's since moved on to Inter Miami) as well as more traditional left back types like Edgar Castillo and injury-plagued Homegrown George Bello.
Will Damm be converted into a wingback to fit this system? He probably has the physical capacity to roam from endline to endline, and Gomez thinks that the role could simplify the game for him.
“I think people don't give him enough credit for how smart he is. He’s very dangerous,” said the retired MLS, Liga MX and US national team striker. “But I don't see him playing in that final third for Atlanta right now. I think maybe a wingback position where he can take advantage of coming in from behind with the space in front of him.”
While Damm won’t have Josef Martinez as a target in the box for a few months yet thanks to the Venezuelan’s ACL rehab, the prospect of those two striking up an understanding might finally give Five Stripes fans a reason to turn the page on their departed favorite Julian Gressel. That requires Damm to execute reliably in the areas where he can be a difference-maker in MLS, with consistently accurate crosses, composed decision-making and defensive fidelity.
It’s a project worth taking on, and a chance for de Boer and his staff to show their skills. Let’s see if they can balance out those heat maps for good.