Julian Gressel needs to be paid.
If not by Atlanta United, then by some other professional soccer team.
Atlanta United Vice President Carlos Bocanegra has described Gressel as valuable and that the club hopes to sign him to a long-term contract. Bocanegra said that the ongoing Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the MLS Players Association has forced negotiations into a holding pattern not only with Gressel, but with centerback Leandro Gonzalez Pirez.
Gressel is frustrated.
He is entering the last year of his current contract, signed after the team drafted him eighth in 2017. Since, he has scored 17 goals and notched 37 assists in all MLS competitions. He was the Rookie of the Year in 2017. He’s helped the club win three major trophies. He’s played at least six different positions under two different managers.
That’s on the field.
Off the field, he’s done numerous community events. He’s almost always done postgame interviews, no matter whether the team won or lost.
He’s been a model player on and off the field.
His salary? $133,000 guaranteed in 2019.
That’s not much in MLS.
That’s a pittance in professional sports.
I’m not one that usually sides with the athletes when it comes to salaries. I think most professional athletes and coaches are vastly overpaid. I think the markets are artificial and, as rude as this may seem, most (not all) athletes and coaches are commodities. But I don’t blame them for trying to maximize their value in the short window some have to do so. I do think that some have forgotten that playing and coaching their sport isn’t a right. It’s an opportunity. It’s a privilege.
But some athletes and coaches are underpaid.
Gressel is one.
Gressel posted 12 assists during the MLS regular season. That was tied for sixth-most in the league.
Here are the approximate 2019 guaranteed salaries of the players who averaged around the same number of assists as Gressel:
- Carles Gil (New England, 14 assists): $2.34 million;
- Cristian Espinoza (San Jose, 13 assists): $550,000;
- Nicolas Gaitan (Chicago, 12 assists): $2.2 million;
- Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle, 12 assists): $2.5 million;
- Alejandro Pozuleo (Toronto, 12 assists): $3.8 million;
- Jan Gregus (Minnesota, 12 assists): $883,000;
- Jack Price (Colorado, 11 assists): $437,000;
- Sebastian Blanco (Portland, 11 assists): $2.9 million;
- Eduard Atuesta (LAFC), 11): $493,000;
That’s an average salary of $1.8 million.
I don’t think Gressel should receive a contract with an average salary of $1.8 million. That would crush Atlanta United’s salary budget. I do think Gressel has earned a contract that pays him significantly more than he has been paid.
Too often, professional sports teams pay athletes for what they have done, instead of what they think they will do. It’s an odd practice and the cost of doing so is often passed down to supporters in terms of higher prices for parking, tickets, soda, beer, food, etc.
This isn’t the case for Gressel.
The German will turn 26 in December. He still has several quality years to play, and his stats indicate he will produce. He had nine assists in 2017, 14 in 2018 and 12 in 2019 during the regular season. He has stayed injury-free, appearing in a minimum of 32 league games each of the past three seasons. He has proved that he is a wise investment.
Plus, Gressel has an almost magical connection with striker Josef Martinez. In three seasons, the two have connected for 20 goals across all competitions. That’s a lot.
Bocanegra’s concern about flexibility with the CBA is understandable, but also rings a a bit hollow. It is improbable that a new CBA will result in teams having smaller salary budgets. Perhaps Atlanta United wants to pay Gressel as much as possible and are waiting to find out how much it can spend. That’s not the best negotiating position, but if that were the case, I’d think the team would have told Gressel something along those lines.
Atlanta United has cleared almost $2 million in salaries off its books from 2019 with Michael Parkhurst’s ($300,000) retirement, and decisions not to bring back players such as Kevin Kratz ($223,000), Brek Shea ($225,000), Flo Pogba ($324,000), Mikey Ambrose ($73,000), Jose Hernandez ($140,000), Justin Meram ($679,000) and Brandon Vazquez ($166,000).
And the team has shown that it has the money and desire to spend with the signing of centerback Miles Robinson, also selected in 2017, to a new contract this summer with a raise of more than $400,000 to more than $600,000. Bocanegra also said that the team should have good news soon on securing Emerson Hyndman from Bournemouth. Money is being spent.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in March that negotiations between Gressel and Atlanta United had broken down.
A few days later, Gressel confirmed that report and said that he wasn’t worried about it. The team was struggling then, and he wanted to focus on producing better results.
Now, two trophies and a strong season later, Gressel’s patience seems to have understandably worn thin.
During exit interviews a few weeks ago, Gressel didn’t want to talk about the negotiations because he said doing so would upset him.
Gressel has said he wants to sign a long-term contract.
He enjoys Atlanta. His wife works in Atlanta. They have made a home. He is beloved by the supporters. He has created a side business, Gresselmania.com.
Most importantly, he has produced.
He has been a professional.
He needs to get paid.
If not by Atlanta United, then by some other team.
Doug Roberson covers Atlanta United for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has covered the franchise since 2014. He is the only Atlanta United beat reporter who covers the games in person home and away. You can follow him on twitter @DougRobersonAJC.
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