Following his first full training session with D.C. United after arriving last week, Julian Gressel declared himself “excited” to be a part of the Black-and-Red. Already a full week into his own preseason due to Atlanta United’s Concacaf Champions League-related early start, Gressel addressed the D.C. media for the first time since coming to the District in arguably the biggest trade of the MLS offseason.
“Physically I feel good, sharpness could get better, but physically I’m in pretty good shape. That’s why it’s not that hard to integrate myself here,” said Gressel following a session that included both time on the training pitch and in the weight room.
Naturally, the process of how he came to be traded to United was a major topic of discussion. Gressel and Atlanta reached an impasse over an extended contract, and eventually the 26 year old came to the conclusion that he would have to move on. “Atlanta always said they would come to the table and we can talk about things, and that just kind of kept dragging on and dragging on...we had some other conversations about, if the CBA was done, [what their offer would] look like, and it never really sounded like they were gonna get to numbers that would work on both sides. That’s really when I decided for myself and for my family, it would be the best thing for us to work with the team and figure out a solution as quick as possible.”
Gressel alluded to the fact that waiting until the CBA was settled would risk losing leverage within the league, as teams would end up acquiring different players to address their own needs. “To wait for that, and then to wait for Atlanta to make me an offer, I think wouldn’t have been great for myself, because then other teams have moved on, and if the offer wasn’t what I was looking for, then it would have been a bad situation for me.”
As a result, Gressel was looking for a resolution at the start of the preseason, and he noted his appreciation of the fact that Atlanta was cooperative. “I’m thankful for that, that Atlanta granted me that, and understood the situation. It’s part of the business, part of the sport.”
Gressel indicated that he felt welcomed by United from the get-go, with players, staff, and even ownership greeting him for the first time this past Wednesday, when he first arrived in the District. Gressel “got a big hug” from former Atlanta teammate Yamil Asad, and mentioned his shared NCAA connections with College Cup opponent Earl Edwards Jr. and Chris Odoi-Atsem, who he got to know at the 2017 MLS Combine.
Interestingly, Gressel said that he had another major contact on the roster: Russell Canouse, who independently reached out to Gressel well in advance of the trade.
“[Canouse] kind of reached out, said ‘Hey, how’s your situation? What’s going on? I know you’re in a tough spot,’ all those kinds of things,” explained Gressel, who said he quizzed Canouse on how the region is as a place to live, and what the coaching staff is like. “Once we got started talking, it was like ‘It’s a great environment, a great culture,’ and I was immediately on board, because I believed him. I was excited, to have that be an option.”
Canouse came up more than once, with Gressel pointing out that both speak German, and that both are married at a younger age than many teammates tend to hit that stage in their lives. The duo also have a shared interest in being involved with the MLS Players Association: Canouse is United’s team representative, and Gressel said that the topic regularly came up in their conversations.
“Now, this is a good opportunity for me to become more involved, with [Canouse], together. I know he’s been involved for about a year and a half or so. So I’m excited for that opportunity to work with him, be a big part in that way as well,” said Gressel.
The MLSPA’s collective bargaining talks with MLS was an unavoidable topic, in part due to the situation Gressel found himself in with Atlanta. There, should he have turned any offers down and left for a different league at the end of his existing contract, the club was in a position to retain his MLS rights for the foreseeable future simply by making an offer. It’s a situation that Gressel says should change.
“Every offseason there’s a handful of guys, at least, that are in situations like this, that are being strained back because of the CBA. They have other teams that want to get them, but it doesn’t work that way,” said Gressel. “I hope that in the future, this can change a little bit, where players will have a bit more [ability] to kind of dictate their own fortunes more, to dictate their own future. Where it also becomes a bit more competitive for the teams, where they can’t just go out and make you a bona fide offer to maintain your rights.”
Addressing the hypothetical prospect of having to play for Atlanta, had they met MLS’s standard for a “bona fide” offer that was short of his needs, Gressel was frank. “That’s something that would have been worst case for me, where it comes to a point where I wouldn’t have been happy at all, playing [in that scenario]. I don’t know if I could have, to be honest.”
Moving on to the subject of where he’ll fit in on the field with United, both Gressel and head coach Ben Olsen conceded that nothing had been determined yet. “We’re gonna look at a few different options,” said Olsen. “With versatility and with players that have certain skillsets like Julian, where he can bounce around and still be effective, it’s a great challenge. We’re looking forward to finding the right mix, not only for where he fits in, but also as a group.”
Gressel did reiterate that he sees himself “long-term as an 8, as a central midfielder,” but was on the same page as his new coach. “I see myself in a lot of different positions, so you’re gonna have to ask Ben. Wherever he sees [me] is where I see myself.”
Olsen added that Gressel joins an attack that is full of players who can “be really effective” when deployed in roles that aren’t their theoretical natural spot. “Guys like [Gressel] and Paul [Arriola], Yamil [Asad], [Edison] Flores, they all have this ability to slip into another role... There still has to be some structure to some of this versatility that we have. That’s, again, what the next couple weeks are gonna be about.”
Going into detail about how Gressel changes the equation for United, Olsen stated that “One of Julian’s best qualities is his service... Whether it’s balls back, or balls in behind the center backs, whether it’s a service to the back stick, he has a nice range of service. And we need that. Ola [Kamara]’s a guy who relies on service. Of course he can create his own goals at times, but we have to make him one of the best scorers in this league again, and that’s gonna be through some of our providers in Flores, and Gressel, and Paul, and Yamil has that ability as well. So it’s an exciting group, an exciting attacking group.”
In Atlanta, Gressel was sometimes overshadowed by the presence of high-priced South American players like Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Pity Martinez, and Ezekiel Barco. However, despite his more humble MLS beginnings — Gressel was taken 8th overall in the 2017 SuperDraft, as opposed to being a multi-million dollar import — the German expressed plenty of belief in himself to be a crucial part of his new club.
“Why have that price tag dictate who you are? I never saw myself that way,” explained Gressel. “I know there’s a lot of talk about Josef [Martinez] made me look better, or [that] I had some more assists because of him, but I also think it goes the other way. I helped him a lot. Maybe he wouldn’t have scored some goals if it wasn’t for me, so I’m looking forward to being here, connecting with the guys. If that’s Ola, if that’s Yamil, who I already have a good connection with, or if that’s Paul when he’s coming in from the national team, I’m excited to be here and figure out a new dynamic for a different team.”
Olsen, who noted that United had scheduled more preseason games than normal this year to give those attacking connections enough time to form, had no problem with that level of confidence. After offering praise for Atlanta as a club, Olsen — who admitted that he’ll “always” welcome a player with a chip on their shoulder — said “In the end, [Atlanta] let him go. And when I was a player, if someone had let me go, I’d have wanted to make sure I stayed at the level, and increased my productivity, and showed that I was not just on a great team and just an accent piece. I’m sure that’s in the back of his head, and that’s just fine if that’s in there.”
That combination of a desire to prove people wrong and the high confidence that any attacking player needs to thrive won’t be a problem for Gressel, or for United’s new-look team. Gressel himself, so accustomed to being on a contender, made no bones about that dynamic, summing up his perspective with some simple words that fans here will surely welcome: “I’m excited for it, excited for this opportunity, for this new chapter, and excited to maybe put a fifth star on that crest.”