Julian Gressel stood on the turf of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, looking up at the giant halo board, watching the replay of himself hitting the half-volley to give Atlanta United a 1-0 lead against Real Salt Lake Saturday.
He smiled, just a little bit.
It seemed like a small moment of appreciation for a nice piece of skill, slamming a curling shot with the outside of his right foot from 15 yards into the opposite, upper corner.
“I mean the ball bounces perfectly right onto my chest, so I didn’t even have to jump or anything,” he said. “Take a pretty good touch with it, and it bounces nicely in front of me. Then, I just tried to bend it right over everyone. It went right where it’s supposed to go.”
Right where it’s supposed to go.
That’s been the story of Gressel’s career since Atlanta United took him with the eighth pick of the MLS SuperDraft in 2017. It was considered a reach pick at the time. Gressel was already 23 and had played four years of outstanding soccer at Providence. Drafts in most sports have turned into guesses at a player’s potential. In Gressel’s case, potential had, theoretically, been maximized.
But that’s not how Gressel works and not what Atlanta United’s front office saw in him.
If there was such a thing as a Second Year Player of the Year Award in MLS, Gressel would likely win that to go along with his Rookie of the Year Award. The German native has eight goals and 23 assists, including one of each against Real Salt Lake, since 2017. That’s more assists than the total of the seven players selected ahead of him in the SuperDraft. Results, not potential.
Gressel sees it the same way, saying he would rather have two assists – meaning two goals for the team – instead of him scoring one goal.
“I mean, I’m just playing,” he said. “Just going out there every day and training, trying to get better. Just continuing to perform better every week on the field. Why should I change that? It’s kind of worked ever since college, or even before. Just the same mindset. I’m not really going home and being like ‘man, I played…’ No, I’m not doing that. So, I’m going to look at it and be critical of myself and Tata (manager Gerardo Martino) is critical with me, like we’ve mentioned, and I’m just going to try to continue to learn and get better.”
With Gressel and a host of talented teammates, no team has won more games since 2017, which is why Atlanta United, if it can defeat New York Red Bulls on Sunday, is on the verge of clinching a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League, as well as this year’s Supporters’ Shield.
Gressel is an important reason why. No matter the position – Gressel has started in five different this season and at least six in his career – he has produced. No matter the competition – the team traded for central midfielder Darlington Nagbe in a record deal and then signed wide midfielder Ezequiel Barco for a record transfer fee, Gressel has consistently said he just wants to make Martino’s decision on the starting 11 to be tough. Lately, Gressel has made the right fullback/wingback his home as he has developed into arguably the most complete two-way defender in MLS.
“He’s kind-of done it all,” Jeff Larentowicz said. “I think that, honestly, from the moment he came in, in Bradenton (Fla.) last year, you know that there was something about him. He’s a special player. Last year, he did it where he was playing multiple positions.
“This year, you feel like he has, as well, probably not as much as last year, but I think that he’s excelled at every single one. Any player playing at that level with that sort-of confidence is going to help the team. He seems like he’s in the middle of everything good that’s Atlanta United when we’re on the field.”
Gressel isn’t the fastest player, but he has enough speed. His endurance, considering the amount of running he must do, is amazing with more than 4,600 minutes logged since 2017. His technical ability is sound, as evidenced by his goal against Real Salt Lake. His tenacity, well, many Atlanta United supporters remember him chasing down Toronto’s Jozy Alitdore, the top striker for the U.S. men’s national team, and putting him on his rear with a shoulder tackle last season. Gressel’s crosses are some of the best in MLS. He has an ability to consistently put the ball – on the air or on the ground – into the sweet spot between the defenders, who can’t attack it for fear of knocking it into their goal, and the goalkeeper.
And he is competitive. After Atlanta United defeated Orlando City 2-1 on Aug. 24, as a sweat-covered Gressel walked up the tunnel to the locker room, he let out a victorious growl and slapped the hand of someone nearby so hard that it sounded like a thunderclap.
Gressel credits Martino for helping him to develop.
“He’s just had a really high standard for me ever since I came in,” Gressel said. “He didn’t categorize me as just a rookie back last year. I don’t know what he saw in me, but at least some potential. You know, every team a manager has that high standards of you, you hold yourself more accountable as well and to a higher standard even more so. That’s just the person I am, and I’ve learned so much from him.”
Martino deflected the praise, saying Gressel’s success is a result of his drive and past coaching.
“The really important thing is the conditions of the player,” he said. “So when a player has good conditions, we can help them grow, maybe in their game or within the style of the team. I always think the most important in their development starts with the player. For example, with Julian, I didn’t develop him to play as a right back, right wing back, an inside midfielder, a right winger. Those are just the qualities that he brings to the table. We try to put them into the best scheme to help them be successful.”