A German in Georgia: Meet Atlanta United's unexpected star import

USA TODAY Sports-Geoff Burke

He was cut by his lower-division club in Germany and nearly quit the game entirely. Now he leads MLS' Rookie of the Year contenders.

There was a moment, before Atlanta United’s season-opening game in front of a sold-out crowd, when Julian Gressel couldn’t help but think about how far he had come.

Gressel was more than 4,500 miles from the small city in Germany where he had grown up. He was a dozen or so years past the 30-minute drives with his mother, Barbara, who decided her son was ready for a higher level than the local club could provide. She helped him get a tryout at a 2.Bundesliga club’s youth setup in neighboring Fürth.

Gressel still remembers the disappointment of being cut from that club’s youth setup as a 15-year-old. But without that moment, he wouldn’t have ended up in the red-and-black stripes of Atlanta United. Barbara Gressel flew over from Germany for that opener and cried as her son walked out in front of the crowd of 55,297 in March.

“Sometimes you think about [those early days] and sometimes it keeps you grounded,” Gressel said. “It just reminds you where you came from and how hard you worked to get here.

“The whole day I could sense she was more nervous than I was, she couldn’t get over the fact I was playing in front of so many people.”

Gressel has been one of the biggest surprises of the first half of the MLS season. The rookie was not expected to be a major contributor on an Atlanta team that had spent plenty of money loading up its midfield with the likes of Miguel Almirón, Hector Villalba, Carlos Carmona, CJ McCann, Yamil Asad and Jeff Larentowicz.

The 23-year-old midfielder wasn’t even expected to be a top-10 pick in the MLS draft. As an international player, Gressel’s stock was down despite a solid performance at the combine and a stellar resume in college soccer with Providence, so it shocked many observers around the league when Gressel was in the starting lineup for that opening game against the New York Red Bulls.

It wasn’t exactly the way Gressel had dreamed it up, either.

After being cut by SpVgg Greuther Fürth in 2002, Gressel started to think about life without professional soccer. He focused more on his academics and picked up a tennis racket and golf clubs. It was only after his family built a house across the street from his town’s local soccer field that he came back to the game and start having fun again.

That led to a chance to play with SG Quelle Fürth, a fourth-division club near Nuremberg, and the encouragement from his family prompted him to join the squad.

“Pretty quickly, I found that drive to be a pro again,” Gressel said.

random Facebook message allowed Gressel to also pursue his goal of getting a college education. Gressel isn’t sure how it found his information, but a company with scouting ties to American colleges reached out about his interest in going to school in the U.S. Gressel had spent 10 months doing study abroad in Florida during high school, and he enjoyed his time in the U.S. Soon he made the leap to Providence.

Four years later, Gressel heard his name called at the MLS draft. Well, sort of. He said he only heard MLS commissioner Don Garber say, “Providence College” before the rest was drowned out.

“I was surprised, to be honest,” he said.

Gressel quickly impressed Atlanta head coach Tata Martino and a club that saw him as the most MLS-ready prospect in the draft. He beat out several veterans for a starting job and has thus far played a role in every United game, collecting three goals and six assists.

He is halfway to the MLS rookie record for assists in a season, a mark held by former Columbus Crew midfielder Andy Williams, who racked up 12 with Columbus in 1998. Three more assists will vault Gressel into third all-time in that category, behind only Williams and Clint Mathis (10). 

Meanwhile, Atlanta looks very much in the mix for a playoff spot, an accomplishment no expansion team has achieved since the Seattle Sounders in 2009. Gressel said that has been the goal since the first day of preseason, and it has helped the expansion team jell.

“We want to make a little history in that way,” he said.

As for Gressel, he said he isn’t paying too much attention to any Rookie of the Year chatter.

“It’d be a great accomplishment,” Gressel said. “Obviously I’d be very happy to receive that award, but I also know there are other great players. I’m not thinking about it too much. It would make me very happy and be another tribute to how much work I’ve put into this and how far I’ve come – the long way I’ve come to achieve those things.”

For now, Gressel said he is focused on getting Atlanta to the playoffs and continuing to impress, so he can stay on the field. For a kid who nearly gave up on his soccer dream, it’s been a crazy run – one Gressel doesn’t want to end any time soon.

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