On Saturday night, Atlanta United defeated the Portland Timbers 2-0 before a crowd of over 70,000 in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium to win the 23rd MLS Cup. Among the champions were two Germans — midfielders Julian Gressel and Kevin Kratz. Despite the presence in MLS in past years of star German players such as Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lothar Matthäus, Jermaine Jones and Torsten Frings, Gressel and Kratz become the first Germans to be crowned champions in MLS.
Gressel, 24, started and played the entire 90 minutes Saturday night for the Atlanta side kitted in similar fashion to the black/red striped shirts of Eintracht Frankfurt. The native of Neustadt in northern Bavaria, Gressel played in the Greuther Fürth youth system and with lower-division sides TSV Neustadt/Aisch and Eintracht Bamberg before making a change in his career path by deciding to play collegiate soccer in the U.S. at Providence College in 2013. As he stated in a recent interview
It was a life decision first and foremost. I still wanted to be a professional soccer player and I probably would have gotten a chance to do so in Germany, but I wanted to study at the same time and be prepared if it didn’t work out. I didn’t see that possibility in Germany. I’m happy here and happy with my decision.
Gressel, who refers to himself a ‘late-bloomer,’ showed enough quality at Providence to be drafted eight overall by Atlanta in the 2017 MLS draft of college players, and took to the professional game quickly, winning the league’s Rookie of the Year honors by notching five goals and nine assists for Atlanta United in their first year in MLS.
This season, the Franconian started 33 of the club’s 34 regular season matches, scoring four goals and finishing in a tie for 2nd in the league in assists with twelve. He was third among Atlanta players in WhoScored.com ratings for the season behind stars Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, who led MLS with a record 34 goals. Gressel ranked 20th in the entire league according to WhoScored, the 2nd youngest player to rank in the top 20 — only Canadian 18 year-old Alphonso Davies, who recently signed with Bayern Munich from the Vancouver Whitecaps, was younger.
Gressel’s value to Atlanta is not only his ability to create and his durability, but also his versatility. He has played at right back, central midfield, and even as a winger on the right side for Coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino. Kratz, meanwhile, has seen most of his action with the Atlanta side from the bench, as he’s started two league matches but come on as a sub in another 26 fixtures. The 31 year-old midfielder, born in Eschweiler in the Aachen district of the North Rhine-Westphalia, played in the Bayer 04 Leverkusen youth system and played in nearly 90 matches for the reserve side of Die Werkself. He featured in over 130 league matches for Alemannia Aachen, Eintracht Braunschweig and SV Sandhausen between 2009 and 2016, including 14 Bundesliga matches with Braunschweig during the club’s 2013/2014 season in the top flight.
Atlanta United possess an option on Gressel’s contract for next season, but the midfielder hasn’t ruled out a return to Germany in his playing career although he enjoys playing in Atlanta and will marry his fiance from his college days at the end of this year. But whatever happens in his footballing future, he will hold, along with teammate Kevin Kratz, the distinction of being the first German champions of MLS, something not achieved by their higher profile countrymen.
(Additionally, more German influence on the Atlanta United side comes by way of captain Michael Parkhurst, who played half a season in the Bundesliga with FC Augsburg, veteran Sal Zizzo who played with Hannover 96 and forward Gordon Wild, 23, the native of Baden-Württemberg who spent this season on loan with the Charleston Battery of USL).