Julian Gressel playing assist-happy role for Atlanta United

ATLANTA — Finding teammates’ feet is something that has always come natural to Julian Gressel.

“When I see an open teammate, I just give it to him,” Gressel said. “He can score all day. That’s just who I am.”

The Atlanta United midfielder is poised to collect an assist in five straight games if he sets up another goal in the matchup against the Chicago Fire this weekend, potentially joining the likes of New York City FC forward David Villa and Chicago forward David Accam — the only two players to have accomplished the feat so far this season.

Gressel recognizes that this season is not only the beginning for something special with Atlanta United in its inaugural season, but for himself.

The 23-year-old, German-born rookie is no stranger to creating dangerous situations on the field. Gressel began his tenure in 2002 in Germany’s youth system with 2nd Bundesliga side, SpVgg Greuther Fürth. After being cut from the youth academy before reaching the U-16 level, he was left in a position where he needed to find his place again in the realm of soccer.

In 2013, Gressel found a home in the U.S. and played collegiate ball for Providence College, where he became a four-year starter. He notched 30 goals and 26 assists in 83 appearances for the Friars to earn Big East Co-Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2016. His breakout senior year, hoisting the Friars to 36 points and All-Big East Conference First Team honors, led to his eventual selection at No. 8 overall in the 2017 MLS Super Draft in January.

He has started every Atlanta United match to date and has even been ahead in the pecking order before in front of veterans and fellow midfielders, Jeff Larentowicz and Chris McCann.

“I think that’s something that was noticeable very early is that he’s smart,” Larentowicz said. “He’s been around the game and I think, although he is a rookie, he is a little bit older than a rookie, and he’s spent some time playing at high levels. But he knows how to pick out the spots and he’s also been getting a lot of coaching. So those two things together form up a good player.”

A sense of rhythm appeared to be lost after such a fast start early in his young, professional career and it showed from his performances against Seattle and Toronto. Gressel completed a small percentage of passes — and only attempted a meager amount to begin with. He struggled to find his form before being subbed off after just 45 minutes one game.

But just as he was once cut from his youth team, Gressel persevered and Atlanta United head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino kept him in the lineup instead of benching the evolving player. Instead, Martino changed it up and pushed Gressel out on the right side of the field. Gressel found success right away when it came time to face the Portland Timbers and contributed to the score line by allowing United to walk away with a point in a 1-1 decision.

“He’s a player that when I arrived he was one of the guys who impressed me the most,” midfielder Carlos Carmona said. “And I think he’s grown a lot and I think it’s great that he has a coach like ‘Tata’ because he’s really able to help with his development.”

Fast forward a few more weeks into the season, despite some of their losses, Atlanta United has become one of the hottest commodities offensively in the MLS. The team has combined for a total of 28 goals that presently lead the league.

“I mean I kind of like it out on the right as of right now,” Gressel said. “I’m feeling pretty good out there. If I see an open teammate, I’ll give it to him or put a cross in or something to have the other guys finish it.”

Gressel is no rookie at the outside position as he once assumed that spot during his days spent with the Friars. He even experienced some time up top as a striker due to their starter being injured. Although he may have been more suited for the central position of the midfield, Gressel has found a new home where he can attack and assist as he pleases.

“He has a good brain as well,” captain and defender Michael Parkhurst said. “He puts the ball in dangerous positions like he did against Vancouver. I don’t know if he was trying to play it to Greg or if he was trying to put it in a tough position for the defense and when you do that good things happen.”

Sure, Josef Martinez’s injury opened up some possibilities and invoked some switching around; however, Gressel’s time spent out wide has proven to be valuable towards Atlanta United’s offense and ability to garner some points.

“With a team that’s spent a lot of money on our attacking third of the field I don’t think many people expected a rookie to come in and be one of our main contributors,” Parkhurst said. “He’s been in great form for us and hopefully it continues.”