What's your game plan?
Being told at the age of 15 that he wouldn’t make it as a soccer player in his native Germany was not the end of Julian Gressel’s career. Instead it was the start of a journey that has taken him from a regional Bavarian side to eighth pick in the 2017 MLS draft.
This is Julian Gressel’s game plan.
Tell me, what was your first dream?
As a kid playing soccer, everybody’s dream is just to become a professional player. The Bundesliga is the big one, yes, but for me it was just to become a professional soccer player. I was with Greuther Fürth in the youth system when they wouldn’t take me for the next level. I was done, the dream was crushed basically.
A couple of months passed and I had fun playing again with some friends. I started to get my drive back but I also knew I wasn’t going to be a soccer player forever. I still wanted to be prepared for life.
If I stayed over here (Germany), it would have been tough to even play fourth division and get an education with training, and all that with the commitment you have with soccer, so I decided in my last year of high school I wanted to go to the US and do both, play soccer and study at the same time.
That move to Providence College in Rhode Island certainly paid off.
Yes, I told my coaches there that I wanted to become pro and they should do everything to help me to become one…
In the US a lot of guys that go to college and play soccer or play any sport, know that this is the highest they will go. But I think especially for guys coming from Europe and going over there, it’s a different story. They just want to get better and develop and be with good programs and then maybe make the next step in the US or elsewhere.
You made that step and left with a golden boot, a pro contract and a degree in management. That’s quite a turnaround.
Yes, to be honest with you, put in a lot of work I wished for it, that’s why I’m not surprised. I know how much work I’ve put into this, and how long of a road it’s been for me … I think it is a tribute to me never stopping and me always wanting to take it to the next level, and just being ready for it as well.
Tell me about your move to Atlanta United FC.
I took my time to prepare … I know myself, and I know what I can do, and then pretty quickly in the first few weeks of training I figured it out, “Yes, I can hang, I can play with all these guys and I’m not afraid.” And then obviously you have to have some luck as well, like a coach that trusts you and all those kinds of things.
That coach is Tata Martino. What’s it like to play for one of the greats in the business?
I think he’s a tremendous coach that knows MLS really well, knows the players and knows what it takes to win. He has tremendous tactical ideas that are just insane sometimes, but they work. I learn so much from him and I’m sure it’s not just me. Some older guys on the team always say, “Man, I wish I had had this kind of a coach in the first few years of my career, and then now I’m at the end of my career I get this coach now, what the hell?”
Early on I felt that he thought a lot of me because in the pre-season I was a little hurt and when I came back I did a few one-on-one sessions just with him, to get caught up. I was like, “Okay, this is pretty cool.”
You set the bar high in your first season, winning Rookie of the Year. What’s the goal for 2018 and beyond?
I want to win championships. I think if I have a career full of soccer where you win championships and don’t really have any bad years, then I think that’s more successful than being in a bad team but playing great. I definitely want to win a championship in Atlanta and try to continue the journey with that team – try and get better there and then see what’s in the future for me.
It would be a dream to come back and play in the Bundesliga or in Europe in general. But if it doesn’t happen I’m just as happy to play 10-12 years in MLS.
How does the MLS compare with soccer across the Atlantic?
I think MLS is unique, just like the Premier League is unique, just like the Bundesliga is unique, and just like La Liga is unique.
There’s the player draft and there’s no relegation really so we don’t really have that fear. You find the positives here by making the playoffs and it can happen that the sixth placed team from the East and the sixth from the West go to the playoffs, reach the final and then actually win the MLS Cup, which is really unique for a league.
Another big difference is travel; our closest away game is an hour and a half flight. We don’t even have a team bus as there’s nowhere to go!