Julian Gressel sprints during a D.C. United friendly on Saturday in Bradenton, Fla.
Photo: D.C. United
Photo: D.C. United

Gressel with D.C. United ... it’s not weird anymore

He’s wearing black warm-up pants and a black T-shirt. 

The logos on the items aren’t Atlanta United’s. 

They are D.C. United’s. 

The clothes fit the same on him as Atlanta United’s. But will he fit in the same? 

The whole scene feels weird. 

Weird not because there is anything wrong with D.C. United’s logo. It was weird because Gressel, after three years — during which he became one of its most popular players because of his production  personality and professionalism — is no longer with Atlanta United. 

He’s with D.C. United. 

And Gressel is happy. 

He’s with a club that, and this is in the eye of the beholder, values him. 

He’s also likely soon to be much richer by more than $500,000 annually, according to some reports.

That’s not weird. 

That’s great. 

In less than two weeks, Gressel now thinks of himself as a D.C. United player. 

“I’m just looking forward to something new,” he said. “The last week has been great. New team. New city. It’s all pretty exciting.” 

Gressel recounts how, almost two weeks ago, he was in Bradenton with Atlanta United. 

Now, he’s in Clearwater with D.C. United. 

The backstory isn’t new. 

Gressel was drafted by Atlanta United with the eighth pick in the SuperDraft. He signed a rookie contract that, for a professional athlete, didn’t pay him much, about $130,000 last year. 

He won a starting job for the opening game and kept starting, and producing, scoring 15 goals with 35 assists while helping the club win three important trophies. 

Before the pending season, his last under contract, he made it known that he would appreciate a new contract. One that paid him close to his production. 

He and Atlanta United saw his value differently. 

Some of that was because of MLS rules, which can make it difficult for teams to reward players who have outperformed contracts. 

Some of that was by choice, because paying those players can be done, but it involves tough choices because money that goes to Player A can’t also be given to Player B in a salary cap/budget league like MLS. 

This story probably means something different to me than it would have any other player on Atlanta United’s roster. 

I was in Los Angeles for Atlanta United’s first draft in 2017. Miles Robinson was the team’s first pick at No. 2 in the first round. That was no surprise. Anyone who attended the combine could see he was an excellent player, easily the best defender in the pool. 

And then the eighth pick came, again Atlanta United’s. 

Julian Gressel. 

Who? 

He wasn’t in anybody’s top 10. 

A quick flip through the draft bios. He produced at Providence. Depth piece more than likely. 

Gressel went to the podium and flashed a smile that could have powered that ballroom. 

“Let’s win a championship,” he said. Or something like that. 

It was much more interesting than anything anyone else said, even if it was a bit arrogant. He’s a kid. He’s excited. 

His head spinning, Gressel answered all of my questions, including who was his favorite Atlanta rapper? He preferred house music. Let’s move on to another question. 

And Gressel turned out to be more than a depth piece. 

In the first training camp at IMG, the veterans noted how Gressel carried himself. How he took coaching from Gerardo Martino and his assistants. How serious he was taking this opportunity. He didn’t come across as feeling like because he was drafted he was owed anything. 

Gressel started the first game in franchise history, which is something he later said he wouldn’t forget. 

He went on to be named Rookie of the Year. A trophy that he said was second to his wife’s C.P.A. achievement. 

And, of course, the next season Atlanta United did win a championship with a victory over Portland. Gressel’s right foot, feeding assists to Josef Martinez like a colorful Adidas spoon, was among many reasons why. 

Atlanta United defender Julian Gressel (24) after scoring the equalizing goal during a MLS match between the Portland Timbers and Atlanta United on June 24, 2018, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by John Adams/Icon Sportswire)
Photo: John Adams/Icon Sportswire

Gressel grabbed the trophy and ran to the Supporters Section. 

“See, you should have listened to me back then,” he could have said. 

And then the team won two more trophies in 2019, but couldn’t defend its title, falling to Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals. 

But those aren’t the reasons why Gressel leaving felt more personal to me than some of the other moves. 

After I became engaged on March 4, 2018, Gressel came over before a training session in the next few days, put his hands together, bowed and congratulated me. I assumed none of the players followed what I post on social media. It was a considerate gesture. We are human. 

Gressel later met my wife by accident while we were out shopping. Gressel introduced me to his wife. She had no idea how Gressel and I knew each other. It was awkward because it was humbling for me. 

There have been other small instances, which happen when the same reporter follows the same team for more than three years. Gressel almost broke my hand one time after beating Orlando, the game where Josef Martinez set the scoring record, as I was standing in the tunnel waiting for interviews. As I waited on the players to come up a ramp and turn a corner, Gressel, covered in sweat, grass and dirt, reached out his hand toward me. I reached out mine. He gave me an unexpected and forceful high five, followed by a grunt of satisfaction.

Those are the moments that stick in my mind. It’s not the goals. I remember his first. It was at Portland. I couldn’t tell you his last. 

It’s the moments. It’s the same for me anyone I’ve covered.

So, now flash forward to near the end of the 2019 season. 

Gressel had been asked during the season how contract negotiations were going. The answer was never positive. 

Gressel didn’t want Designated Player money, he said on Thursday. He never wanted DP money. He said that’s one fact that some of the team’s supporters consistently got wrong. 

But it was becoming clear that a contract wasn’t coming. Other players received new deals. Other players were brought in. Waiting on the new CBA was a reason given. 

September 27, 2017 Julian Gressel started the match in exchange for the injured Miguel Almiron, who for his outstanding performance was named best player of the match, the change in the second half of the match
Photo: MIguel Martinez/MundoHispanico

Gressel tried to create leverage by not truly participating in the first training camp of the 2020 season. That lasted just one day. 

Some supporters said he was being selfish. Some understood. 

Gressel and his agent, who were in conversation every night and sometimes every couple of hours, decided that holding out wasn’t a smart tactic. Atlanta United president Darren Eales is very brand conscious and probably didn’t like how Gressel’s decision reflected on the club. Gressel returned to training the next day. 

The team put him on the interview list for that first Friday of training camp. Every day, I assumed he would be taken off the list because everyone knew what he would be asked. 

Gressel came out that Friday and tried to turn the questions away from his contract. He was accused by some supporters of whining and trying to make things all about him. He was actually trying to do the opposite. 

The team flew to IMG in Bradenton for training camp. Back to where Gressel’s career took root. 

His agent called Monday night to tell him it appeared 95% certain that the team was going to trade him to D.C. United. 

Gressel tried to sleep. He couldn’t. 

At 8:30 a.m. Tuesday morning he received a text from team vice president Carlos Bocanegra to call him. Gressel called while walking to breakfast. 

He was being traded. Final details were being worked out. Thank you for everything you’ve done and helped the club to do. 

Breakfast was eaten. As Gressel and the rest of the team walked to a weightlifting session, he checked Twitter and saw Steven Goff, who covers D.C. United for the Washington Post, and is one of the best soccer journalists in the world, break the news that the trade was done. 

Gressel was going to get a new team, a new contract and a raise of more than $500,000. Atlanta United was going to likely receive more than $1 million in Allocation monies. 

September 16, 2017 Atlanta - Atlanta United defender Julian Gressel (24) scores past Orlando City SC goalkeeper Joseph Bendik (1) in the first half of an MLS soccer match at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, September 16, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Teammates congratulated Gressel. He actually worked out for a few minutes. 

Then came the phone calls to and from D.C. United’s Dave Kasper, manager Ben Olsen and a few players. 

Gressel wanted to get to D.C. as soon as possible. The club booked a flight. He had 30 minutes to shower, pack, say goodbyes to teammates, coaching staff and others, and get an Uber to Tampa and the airport. 

The next day, he participated in his first training camp. Then, it was back to Florida for training camp in a new city with his new team. 

Gressel said the soccer is a bit different. There are daily shorter video sessions. Atlanta United’s are typically once a week and longer. There is more conversation between the players and the coaching staff about tactics as the team tries to build its identity. Like Atlanta United, D.C. United has acquired many players who are versatile. Gressel started at six different positions in three seasons with Atlanta United. 

“We have one goal and that’s to win games and win trophies,” he said. “We are headed in a pretty good direction so far.” 

Gressel and his wife haven’t yet moved. Gressel, whose family in Germany is in the logistics and trucking business, is excitedly working on those details. He said it’s something he likes to do and is good at it. They hope to be in the D.C. area by early March. She left her job as a C.P.A. after one year and is now a certified nutritionist and spin-class instructor. 

The day the trade was announced, Gressel said there were no hard feelings toward Atlanta United. That feeling hadn’t changed as of Thursday. Gressel said he feels empathy for others. If a team believes it can get similar production from a different player at a cheaper price, why wouldn’t they? Plus, in MLS, he said it can be easier for players to get the money they think they deserve from other teams in the league because that’s how the rules can work. 

The money. What will Gressel do with his new wealth? 

Not much, it seems. It’s not life-setting money, like it can be in the other sports in North America. He and his wife want to be smart about it. He said they may pay off a student loan. 

“It’s not so much about — obviously it is to a certain extent — it’s not so much for me about having now this big pay raise, or getting paid,” he said. “It’s getting paid adequately to what I’m worth. And what other players get. That was a big thing to me. I felt undervalued in a way, which was difficult to deal with at times. 

“That was the No. 1 feeling that I was having. It changes things going for me in the locker room. There are more eyes on me and more expected of me, which is an interesting and a fun challenge.” 

He would like to continue to help people, referencing the many stories emerging about Kobe Bryant and his generosity. Gressel acknowledges he can’t do anything on that scale, but he hopes to try to do things that generate happiness. 

As an example, Gressel still has most of his old Atlanta United gear. He gave back this season’s uniform because it was barely worn. He said he was a video on social media about a little girl who was in tears about him leaving Atlanta United. He has reached out to the girl’s parents to try to give her a piece of his Atlanta United gear in hopes that will help someone smile. 

“That’s something that I hope that Atlanta fans will remember me for,” he said, before referencing something he and I have talked about a bit in the past. “That and bodying Jozy (Altidore) in the corner, as well.” 

Nov 11, 2018 Atlanta: Atlanta United Josef Martinez celebrates scoring the team’s first goal against goalkeeper Sean Johnson on a penalty kick for a 1-0 lead over New York City with teammates Miguel Almiron and Julian Gressel during the first half in their MLS Eastern Conference Semifinal playoff match on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Gressel will wear a new number for D.C. United: 31. The 24 he wore with Atlanta United is taken at D.C. United by goalkeeper Bill Hamid. 

Gressel chose 31 because it was the number that his favorite player, Bastian Schweinsteiger, started with. 

As the interview wraps up, Gressel is asked if he is looking forward to the Fourth of July, when D.C. United will play Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the teams’ first meeting of the season. 

Gressel’s wife has already bought plane tickets. 

So, yeah. 

Gressel said he has thought about the little things. Warming up on the other end. Not walking through the Delta Lounge to get to the locker room, which also will be different. 

Maybe he can go out with his old teammates for dinner after the game. 

There are no hard feelings. 

It’s no longer weird. 

“I’m happy we got it resolved and happy and thankful it went over that quickly and smoothly in that way,” he said.

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About the Author

Doug Roberson
Doug Roberson
Doug Roberson covers the Atlanta United and Major League Soccer.
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