Minnesota the right place right now for energized Josh Gatt
PORTLAND, Ore. – Part of you wants to think this is a surprise. Josh Gatt, having spent his entire professional career in Europe, is suddenly on the campus of the University of Portland, practicing days ahead of his official arrival with Minnesota United.
How did he get here? On one level, it makes sense. Major League Soccer is bigger and richer than ever. Within the arc of the league’s growth, the ability to bring a 25-year-old U.S. international back from Norway is no huge shock.
“I’m excited to bring everything I’ve learned overseas there, to the States, and really cause some havoc for some other teams.”
Yet as news of Gatt’s potential move from Molde started to leak out, there was still a sense of a coup. Sure, he’d been derailed by knee injuries, thrice, but this is still somebody few saw returning home so soon.
After three titles in Norway, but only seven games played over the last three seasons, it was time for Gatt to change course.
“It’s a new chapter in my career, and I’m looking forward to it,” the Plymouth, Michigan native explained, having just finished training with his new team at Merlo Field. “I’ve spent my whole career overseas, so it’s going be nice to revamp, get back into long seasons and playing here at home.”
Watching Gatt’s pressing harass new teammates in six-a-side scrimmages, there’s no hint of rust, let alone lingering effects of the three knee injuries suffered since 2013.
He’s the fastest player on the field, and the most dogged. Any pass back to a central defender sees that man closed out in seconds. The speed that made Gatt one of the U.S.’ most intriguing prospects ahead of his 2012 international debut is still there. If anything, Gatt notes, that athleticism has become more dangerous after what he’s been through.
“I haven’t lost anything that people might have thought I had, with surgeries,” Gatt explains. His words are intent, but he demeanor is not. He’s relaxed talking about it, showing no resentment about his misfortune.
“I’m still the same player. I’m still as fast as I was. Still as energetic. I’m still as lively. I’m still as dangerous as I once was before, if not more so, at this point, because I’ve got a little wiser through these injuries.”
It’s a boon for Minnesota United, which over the course of six weeks has seen its attacking depth go from non-existent to enviable. On Jan. 5, the Loons signed Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez, favorites from the club’s time in the second division. Eight days later, UCLA striker Abu Danladi was taken first overall in the MLS SuperDraft. On Jan. 26, the club paid a record sum in allocation money to get Kevin Molino. Now, Gatt’s been added to the fold.
“We’re going to need it,” United head coach Adrian Heath said, when asked about his newfound attacking depth, “especially this year with World Cup qualifiers, [Gold Cup] and Copa America, again. We’re going to need all these options, and Josh just gives us another.”
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The team still has questions elsewhere. That’s to be expected, with no Major League Soccer games on its books. But when Minnesota arrives at Providence Park on March 3 for its MLS debut, it will do so with something few anticipated it would have in its arsenal. The Loons will have a legitimate element of danger in its starting XI.
“I think [Gatt is] a little bit different than what we’ve got,” Heath said, “because he does rely purely, simply and mainly on his athleticism. He’s really quick.
“I think it’s another little string to our bow. He’s a little bit different to the ones that we’ve got.”
That’s Minnesota’s side of the equation. But what about Gatt? Having left Molde at the end of the 2016 season, Gatt began pursuing other options in Europe. Healthy again, and with performances that established himself as a when-fit threat in Norway, Gatt should have had options.
As the European transfer window closed, however, Gatt started to narrow his choices, and with Minnesota having shown interest for some time, the Michicgan native decided it was time to take the MLS plunge.
“It’s obviously where I grew up,” Gatt explained, asked about an area of the country that’s getting its first Major League Soccer team. “I grew up in the Midwest. I’m a Midwest boy, through and through. My family is close to there … I’m looking forward to being a part – being able to enjoy Minneapolis.”
How Gatt fits with his new team is uncertain. Heath said his initial plans are for Gatt to play a traditional winger’s role. With Danladi, Ramirez and Molino operating through the middle, that makes sense. But Gatt spent his final days in Norway developing into a player who could also play through the middle, something that could be a terrifying prospect for any MLS defender who lacks confidence on the ball.
“I’m a workhorse,” Gatt says, “and I plan to run a lot and cause problems when I can. If we get a good team shape behind us defensively and I can start us off defensively by forcing bad passes from center backs, that’s a real advantage we could have.”
“If [forward is] a position that they want me to play here, I can handle that. If they want me to play out wide, I can handle that … I think [versatility] will be an advantage.”
It at least gives Heath options. If Gatt returns to his former self, he’s capable of claiming the wing spot opposite Ibarra. On nights Molino needs to rest, he can play through the middle, and late in matches, when Minnesota is trying to kill off leads, he can move higher on the field and show his speed’s full pressing potential.
“It’s also the first time I’ve ever been there. I’ve never been to Minnesota before. It will be really exciting to get used to the state, learn about it, be part of the city.”
It’s the kind of flexibility few expansion teams have – options Minnesota surely wishes it had elsewhere on the field, too – but for Gatt, there are more basic and important elements to his move. Out of high school, Gatt elected to forgo a chance to play at Indiana University to pursue a career in Europe. From then, from his first club in Austria (Rheindorf Altach) to his six-year run in Norway, Gatt has been a part-time resident in the U.S.
Gatt’s come back fully matured, both as a player and a man – a Midwestern boy couldn’t be happier to be moving closer to home.
“It will be nice to be able to go to the movies and not watch movies with subtitles,” Gatt explains, when asked about what he missed about the U.S. “That will be nice … It will just be exciting to be back here, to be living in [the States].”
Moving closer to home, to a club that had pursued him, in a league that’s continuing to prove viable for players who were his path. It all makes sense. Minnesota, in so many ways, is the right place for Josh Gatt, right now. How he fits with the Loons, and how quickly he can start producing like his former self, will determine how right the move is for Minnesota.
Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.