D.C. United made its biggest MLS trade in years today, announcing a deal to bring Atlanta United wide man Julian Gressel to the District. The trade, confirmed just hours after Washington Post reporter Steve Goff broke the news, will see United send $750,000 in Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) to Atlanta, while there are performance incentives that could take the total amount of allocation money heading to Georgia over $1 million. Per Goff, Gressel is expected to join United’s training session tomorrow morning.
“We’re excited to bring a player of Julian’s quality and pedigree to the club ahead of the 2020 season,” said United General Manager Dave Kasper in a team press release. “He has impressed throughout his time in MLS and has been a major component to Atlanta’s success in the league since 2017. Last year, he led Atlanta in assists and chances created while also scoring eight goals so we’re looking forward to adding his impressive goal creating ability and eye for goal to our roster in 2020 and beyond.”
Gressel, 26, has spent three seasons as a key player for a consistent MLS Cup contender in Atlanta. Since being picked 8th overall in the 2017 SuperDraft, Gressel has put up 15 goals and 35 assists in 98 MLS regular season appearances (88 starts), and has played every second of Atlanta’s 9 playoff games in that time, including being a key player for the 2018 MLS Cup-winning side.
For United, Gressel’s role is not entirely clear, though it is certain that the Black-and-Red didn’t make one of the biggest allocation money trades in MLS history simply to add depth. Gressel has thrived as both a winger and a wingback, depending on whether the Five Stripes wanted to play a 433 or 352, and he has also spent some time as a right back and as a box-to-box central midfielder.
Given that United decided not to pursue a permanent move for right back Leonardo Jara after the end of the 2019 season, Gressel’s role may end up being there at first. United’s other options at that spot include a natural defensive midfielder in Russell Canouse and two players (Oniel Fisher and Chris Odoi-Atsem) who are coming off of long-term injuries.
That said, Gressel could also slot in on the right wing in Ben Olsen’s preferred 4231 formation. In that instance, Paul Arriola would likely be expected to move over to the left (where he plays for Gregg Berhalter with the USMNT), with new club-record transfer Edison Flores the attacking midfielder between them. United also has former Atlanta attacking midfielder Yamil Asad in the mix, giving Olsen the fabled “good problem” of having so many talented players that it’s hard to field everyone at the same time.
The trade is also a signal of United’s intent. Speaking after training today, Olsen told assembled media that DCU ownership’s intentions were to compete for MLS Cup in 2020. “The owners have been very, very supportive of what we want to do this year, and the players that we wanna bring in... Of course, now we wanna get over that hurdle that we haven’t been able to in the last two years,” said the longtime United boss, alluding to United’s first-round playoff exits in 2018 and 2019.
In MLS, it’s become increasingly clear that true contenders can’t just have a cup-winning first 11, but rather need players coming off the bench that would likely start on teams that are merely trying to make the postseason. With Atlanta, LAFC, Toronto FC, and the Seattle Sounders raising the bar, United’s bold moves — and make no mistake, Gressel and Flores are among the biggest offseason moves in all of MLS this winter — were a must if they wanted to make a concerted push for trophies.