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As DC United's Julian Gressel faces ex-club Atlanta for the first time, no one seems to have won the trade | Sam Jones

What if no one wins the breakup? 

Julian Gressel and Atlanta United both got done telling their friends that “Yeah, I cut things off with them” and then each went on to have the worst year of their MLS existence. That’s not necessarily a sign of co-dependence. But that decision and these outcomes aren’t mutually exclusive. And now, on Saturday night, they’re going to be at the same party for the first time (7:30 pm ET | TV & streaming). It could get awkward.

Gressel’s departure from Atlanta this past offseason largely came down to money. After being one of, if not the most underpaid player in the league at a base salary of $150,000, he entered contract discussions understandably looking for more. Whatever he wanted, Atlanta didn’t want to match it. So he went to D.C. to play for a salary that’s been reported as somewhere around $700,000

That’s almost five times the cash he made in Atlanta. Which seems like a lot until you realize that Atlanta is reportedly paying Emerson Hyndman, a player who so far hasn’t matched Gressel’s productivity (albeit in a different spot on the field), somewhere around $800,000 this year, with that eventually increasing to $1 million, according to reporting earlier this year from The Athletic.

In his time with the Five Stripes, Gressel won Rookie of the Year, started nearly every game in the club’s history, scored 15 goals and assisted on 35 (!!??!?!), and helped the team win MLS Cup 2018. On top of that, the dude was uber-popular. Not quite on the level of Josef Martinez or Miguel Almiron, but not far away either. But Atlanta chose to spend their money elsewhere, and D.C. swooped in.

According to Steven Goff of the Washington Post, D.C. had been interested in Gressel before, even going as far to plan on drafting him before Atlanta took him four spots earlier. And now that they’re finally together … well, it could be going better. 

At first, it seemed like it might go great. Gressel had a “new life, new me” vibe in his new city. 

“You go one way, you go to the water, which is kind of cool,” he told press in March. “And then when you go the other direction, you get to the capital and the National Mall and all the way to the monuments and the White House.”

I promise I didn’t make that up, even though through the lens of this dating bit I’m doing it totally feels like the athlete version of posting a selfie on Instagram in the hopes your ex sees how happy you are. Look, dumb bit aside, there doesn’t seem to be any genuine bad blood between the two sides. Business happens and Julian is still beloved by Atlanta’s fans regardless of whatever might have happened on the business side. But it does seem that both sides might be realizing they were better off with each other. 

In D.C., Gressel has registered just one goal and one assist in 13 starts. That’s far below his normal pace in Atlanta, even in his rookie season. The analytics suggest he’s not necessarily playing terribly in D.C., but he is playing much more defensively. Which is fine, I guess, but it feels like using an expensive painting as a mat to dry dishes on. Sure it will get the job done, but are we really using it in the best way? 

In Atlanta, Gressel thrived when Atlanta got out on the front foot. Every time I saw Gressel get out into space out wide with no one around him I knew that the Five Stripes were putting up three at least that day. The opposing team had decided that they were going to focus on Atlanta’s other star players and had resigned themselves to hoping Gressel wouldn’t hurt them as much. That, of course, meant that they were doomed. 

But that might be the crux of all of this. Not only did Atlanta actively want to get on the front foot in its best moments, but it had the players to do it. D.C. United have scored one goal before the 59th minute this season. In Atlanta, Gressel had the cast around him to thrive. And despite D.C.’s efforts to bring in a cast with some of the same features, they’re tactically and technically limited, especially by a recent spate of injuries.

Gressel's first D.C. goal

“I’ve always wanted to be a guy who’s up there with all the stars that Atlanta bought,” Gressel said upon arriving in D.C. “That was Josef, that was Pity [Martinez], that was [Ezequiel] Barco. I’ve never seen myself as lesser than those guys, and I think I’ve shown that on the field.”

He certainly wasn’t lesser on the field. And often he acted as a far better leader than at least two-thirds of the aforementioned players. But unlike them, he’s not a player that’s going to take over a lot of games. Especially in a system where that’s almost not even in the realm of possibility. He’s still a gifted player, though. He has the ability to capture and understand a fanbase, and he could still do so in D.C.

On the other side of the coin, he wouldn’t have saved Atlanta this year, either, but he would have at least helped steady them. He would have given the fan base a popular player to stay connected to. And when the pieces in Atlanta eventually do get back to the normal standard, he would have made them better. 

Both sides are worse off for being separated. And unfortunately for both, there’s no getting back together any time soon.

Saturday’s gonna be weird.

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