Exclusive - As he prepares for his third season with DC United, Julian Gressel knows it's time for him to assume extra responsibilities.
A number of senior players have departed the Black and Red this offseason, most prominently Paul Arriola to FC Dallas, but also the likes of Frederic Brilliant (retirement) and Felipe Martins, who may yet return but whose future remains unclear.
At 28 years old and with over 150 MLS games under his belt, Gressel is one of the most experienced players remaining on Hernan Losada's roster. He's relishing the prospect of taking up a leadership role.
"You know, I've said that from the start that I want to be a guy that comes in and kind of leads the way," Gressel told 90min in an exclusive interview. "I think now with the group that we have, our core group with Steve (Birnbaum), Russell (Canouse), and Bill (Hamid). There are not many guys that are in my age group. Obviously, Paul just left, so he's out of there.
"I'm one of the older players on the team and I feel like I've accomplished quite a few things. I've obviously won an MLS Cup and the Open Cup. So I know what it takes in that sense. I certainly think that I've kind of played myself into that role, I want to say, even with performances on the field, but also how I've been my whole career off the field. I'd say I'm a leader and I'm taking pride in that."
DC United will need every ounce of Gressel's quality both on and off the field in 2022. The player himself thrived last season, playing all 34 regular-season matches despite the intense physical demands of Losda's system, ending the season with three goals and nine assists.
But despite a number of promising performances during Losada's debut campaign in charge, the four-time MLS Cup champions ran out of gas and failed to make the Playoffs.
"I think it was it was very new to all of us, from people that work in the front office to players, everything was pretty new and we changed a lot," Gressel said of last season's adjustment to Losada's style.
He continued: "My impressions of Hernan were that he wanted to win at all costs, he wanted us to do everything possible in order to achieve that.
"Obviously, he has his beliefs in the way he wants to play and the way he wants us to be as professionals. So maybe some guys were thrown off a bit at the start, but I think we kind of grew into it and you can kind of see how good we were in spells we had throughout the year."
When asked about DC's failure to make the Playoffs, Gressel was unwilling to point to one particular flaw, but maintained 2021 was a 'season of growth'. It's also important to remember that Losada is just 39 years old and is entering just his third full year as a head coach. Along with his players, he's growing into his role, too.
"It's a maturity thing, right? A maturity thing from us players as well as Hernan and the coaching staff," Gressel said, reflecting on 2021. "They've got to know the league now, they've got a full season under their belt."
Leadership roles aside, Gressel's most important contribution to DC United will continue to be chance creation. There's arguably no better crosser of the ball in MLS right now, with the German-born wideman able to put the ball on a dime from the opposite side of the field.
A third of his assists last season were for Norwegian striker Ola Kamara, who lost out on the Golden Boot only by virtue of registering fewer assists than winner Taty Castellanos.
Deadly partnerships with clinical strikers are a hallmark of Gressel's game, though. In 2019, he provided no fewer than eight assists for Atlanta United striker Josef Martinez after setting him up seven times the year prior - both league highs.
So, how do the two strikers compare?
"I mean, it's different than with Josef," Gressel laughed. "With Joseph, really it was more intense. I want to say because Josef is a more intense guy, you know?"
Of Kamara, he said: "He's been great ever since I got here. I think he knew that I was going to try and provide him the ball and I was going to try and give assists to him.
"I feel like last year we kind of got into it a little bit more and became more instinctive. Like, 'OK, just make your run and I'll find you'. So we got more on the same page in that sense. But Ola has been great. He's a good guy and he's a hard worker, and I'm happy for him that he had the season he did last year."
The days of Gressel assisting Martinez and lifting trophies with Atlanta United already seem like a distant memory given all he's been through with DC United. But his exit from Mercedes-Benz Stadium remains a painful one for himself and the Atlanta United supporters, who held the 28-year-old in very high regard.
Although he seemed to be gone in the blink of an eye, his eventual exit in 2020 was the end of a long-running process of disagreements and communication breakdowns. Gressel opened up on the process to 90min.
"It took a very long time and was a process that really started just before the MLS Cup win, where Carlos and the club approached us about extending the contract, and it took a really long time for us to get an offer and get things moving," he said.
"By the end of 2019, in which I had another good season, it was still not moving. They just kept saying 'oh, we want to wait for the CBA', and I was like 'well, who knows when that CBA is going to be done?'."
Gressel's contributions on the field for Atlanta United spoke for themselves and are well reflected in his aforementioned assist numbers. But he also became a big part of the local community and was one of the core players taken to the hearts of supporters.
To say he loved Atlanta and they loved him back would be an understatement but, all the while, Gressel felt undervalued by the club's Front Office.
"It just didn't feel like I was valued or seen as a big part of the club, like I feel I was on the field and in the community," Gressel continued.
"If you even just look at the stuff on the field, I think I was right up there with max TAM and lower DP guys statistically. I just wanted my fair share, and I was still being realistic in a sense. But, you know, I just never felt like we were getting close to an agreement really up until the end.
"Once we started pre-season camp and still nothing had happened, that's when I made the decision and forced it a little bit. Ultimately, it resulted in the trade. The club made a business decision to trade me and not pursue new contract negotiations any further."
That decision was one met with backlash from supporters, who were angry to see one of their most important players and a direct supply line to Josef Martinez leave so easily.
"Ultimately, that's okay for me," Gressel reflected. "It's their decision, they have to deal with the fans more than I do, and with Josef and all the other factors that came together there.
"It was a long process and an emotional time for me, especially when that season was over and still nothing was happening. It was something I've learned a lot from, and I've certainly made some mistakes throughout the time, I'm not saying it was their fault or anybody's fault.
"This is real stuff and it's okay, ultimately I ended up in DC and I'm grateful for them giving me the opportunity and trusting me by giving me the contract I was looking for.
"I'd be lying if I said I wanted to leave at the time. I didn't want to leave, up until the very end I was hoping we could find an agreement. I was looking for conversations that I never got, especially from Carlos [Bocanegra] specifically. I've spoke to Darren [Eales] and some other people. But ultimately, the club made a decision and I was happy with it in the end."
Despite the dark cloud he left under, Gressel still looks back fondly at his time with Atlanta United and continues to feel the love of the supporters.
"I still look back and think, man, that was special," Gressel reflected. "And every time I go back to Atlanta, or I even see things on social media, where I still get comments on Instagram and Twitter saying 'hey, miss you in Atlanta'. I see that and I value it because it was such a good time.
"I'm happy to be open to the fans and hopefully them get to know me, even some of them who might not like me as a player or whatever.
"I was always just trying to give back to the community for what they gave us in the locker room and I certainly look back to all of it with nothing but a smile on my face. I'm excited to go back there every year and play there. It's special. It'll be a special place in my heart for me and my family forever."