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Julian Gressel's journey to MLS helping validate U.S. college soccer program

Julian Gressel came close to realizing his dream of becoming a professional soccer player in Germany. He played for FC Eintracht Bamberg, an amateur team in the fourth division of German soccer, and clubs began scouting him. According to Gressel, clubs in the third division were interested in signing the 18-year-old winger, who could also play right- and left-back.

He had a decision to make: Either take a chance, move up a division and maybe play, continuing the journey to a full-time soccer player; or he could accept a college scholarship offer in the United States, play soccer part-time and get a degree, giving himself a backup plan if his dream never happened.

Gressel was considered a late bloomer, someone who was just beginning to grow into his body and develop the skills necessary to even test the waters of becoming a professional. He'd already been cut from one youth team and had to refocus his career goals. Now, he was being asked to do it again. He had begun to explore the possibility of college soccer in America. The ability to continue school while playing soccer enticed him, and he chose to take a scholarship from Providence College in Rhode Island. He knew he needed the time and the degree.

"I probably would have got the chance, but I don't know if I would have taken it," Gressel said of professional opportunities in Germany during a phone interview with ESPN FC.

His decision paid off. He spent three-and-a-half years playing for Craig Stewart's Friars while studying management. He became one of the best players in college soccer and signed a deal with Major League Soccer after his third and final season. He got drafted by Atlanta United, an expansion team, with the eighth pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft and established himself as the best rookie in the league.

Gressel's signing got lost in the big-name moves that Atlanta made before the season -- signing U.S. men's national team goalkeeper Brad Guzan and left-back Greg Garza, and exciting South American attackers Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron -- but he quickly established himself as one of the team's most important players in its historic first season.

He played on the right wing and was even deployed as a holding midfielder at times for Atlanta, playing 32 games and scoring five goals and adding nine assists. Gressel went from possibly giving up on his professional career to becoming Rookie of the Year on one of MLS' most exciting teams. And he wouldn't have been there if he hadn't gone the route that so many American soccer fans and pundits lament: through the collegiate system.

"I don't think I would have been an MLS player coming over from Germany to here. I don't think I could have done that or been close to where I am right now," Gressel said. "There are always things where people take a chance on you and maybe you take it and grab it and move on. It happens. But in a sense, I think I had a better chance after college. I definitely believe that."

Julian Gressel celebrates during Atlanta United's MLS match against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Julian Gressel was named MLS Rookie of the Year in 2017 after being drafted by Atlanta United.

Soccer surrounded Gressel growing up in Neustadt an der Aisch, a small town in the northern part of Bavaria. A ball never seemed to leave his grip growing up. As soon as people would let him in on a game, he jumped in. His father played for TSV Neustadt/Aisch, an amateur team that Gressel's grandfather managed. He would play for the club as a teenager. When he turned 7, he started going on the bus to away games with the team and sat on the visitors' bench with his grandpa. After the game, he'd take a shower with the team in the locker room and ride the bus home. When he was 10, his family built a house across the street from the team's fields, so he could play whenever he wanted.

The game became part of him, and then it left him searching.

When Gressel was 14, SpVgg Greuther Furth released him from their academy. They didn't see a future for him as a professional. He was one of the smallest kids on the team, not developing fast enough and just not good enough.

The game soured for Gressel, and he needed something new. He needed to grow up. He decided he wanted to go to America. Between 10th and 11th grade, Gressel applied to an exchange program and moved for a school year to Hobe Sound, Florida. He studied at a small private high school nearby and played on the school's soccer team, scoring goals for fun.

When he returned home from Florida, Gressel's soccer career progressed again, and he came close to making it out of the amateur ranks, but saw slim chances of turning his career into something long term. He wanted a backup plan in case he discovered the road to becoming a professional soccer player blocked or closed. So he decided to go back to the United States to study and play college soccer.

Under Stewart, Gressel had a coach familiar with the trials and tribulations of the European soccer experience. Stewart, a former Newcastle academy player who eventually found success playing and coaching college soccer, left the professional dream in England and discovered a new one. For him, college soccer can be the perfect place for players to discover who they are, to grow and mature.

"I think it's such a small margin between who makes it and who doesn't, that it's tough to disregard these guys and say that's it," Stewart said. "I think the club he was at at the time didn't project he was going to develop physically or mentally as well and he wasn't quite there at 15, 16, and they released him and that was his first blow. That can kill some guys. I think for Julian that was almost motivation for him."

At Providence, Gressel found instant success. He scored in his debut against Quinnipiac and played in all 22 games for the team on its way to the 2013 Big East Championship match, which Providence lost 3-2 to Marquette, and to an NCAA tournament bid. By the time he was a senior, Gressel had become one of college soccer's premier players, collecting 15 goals and six assists and leading all goal scorers at the NCAA tournament. The moment that stands out when looking at Gressel's college career is a few seconds in a game against Clemson on Aug. 29, 2016.

The Friars goalkeeper cleared the ball and Gressel took it back into his own half, snapped a second touch, almost slipping to the ground, turned towards Clemson's goal and set his feet into a stutter as if he was going to launch a pass over the top of the Clemson defense. Instead, he launched a shot from barely over midfield, over the goalkeeper and into the net. This was not a wobbling midfield shot. It was a booming force that blasted off from Gressel's foot, powerful and furious.

It was a shining example of what was to come from Gressel in a few months, when he joined Atlanta. It's a move of power and determination as well as a good understanding of the situation.

College soccer has provided a fruitful platform for foreign players to make their way to MLS. Players like Gressel, Joao Moutinho at LAFC, Jack Elliott at the Philadelphia Union, Dom Dwyer at Orlando City and Jack Harrison now of Manchester City are recent examples who have found the route to becoming a professional easier after getting the time to develop and grow while playing college soccer. It gave them a chance to discover themselves, but also be discovered by teams.

"The timing of when [a player] is ready to make that jump is obviously different for everyone. I think the platform of college soccer can be very good, one in the sense that you're still training and competing. That's what I tell the internationals coming over," Stewart said. "It's kind of: you compete and train every day in a good environment, competition level is good, develop as a player and get your education, which is huge, and if you were elsewhere you wouldn't get that opportunity."

The opportunity is all some players need. It's hard to see a professional career, through. The statistics are against players when it comes to making it to a top level, or even a level that is financially self-sustaining in the long run.

"I think it is exhausting chasing the professional career back home," Stewart said. "I think this is quite refreshing to do something different and then still have the chance to be a professional at 20, 21 years old, where unless you're just going around the lower leagues back home, you probably wouldn't get that chance ... When we speak to internationals, that is kind of the pitch."

But college soccer is often looked down on by the greater American fan base. Its limitations on playing hours, freewheeling substitutions and short season with up to four games a week don't allow for ideal player development, which is something former U.S. men's national team coach and technical director Jurgen Klinsmann said he wanted to change. But he also accepted that college soccer was part of the system, which was a rare moment of accepting the status quo for the outspoken German.

In America, it's all about looking at the historical soccer powerhouses in South America and Europe and wanting to emulate their system of creating professional players. We dream of academies like in Germany, Spain, England and France, and of the street skills of players who make it from South American countries. We don't see the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo going to college on their way to becoming a professional and think that's the only way.

What is missed, and often overlooked, is how it has helped other players reach the next level, like Clint Dempsey or Geoff Cameron. The American youth soccer structure is a tangled web of clubs, pay for play, new academies and the old-fashioned town and high school teams. It has tentacles that extend in all directions, and every player has his or her own path through that convoluted system to become the best player they can. It's not the best scenario by any stretch, but it's the system for now.

New England Revolution coach Brad Friedel has seen every different pathway to becoming a professional. He went through the old American youth soccer system, played college soccer at UCLA, went to a national team camp, played in MLS for the Columbus Crew, went to England and even spent time coaching in Tottenham's academy when he played for the club. He sees the American system as something evolving and has his issues with college soccer -- the schedule and lack of practice time being the main problems -- but he looks at player development as a club responsibility.

"When you talk traditional development, traditional development is completely different in every single country, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that soccer is the main, number one, be-all-end-all sport in most of the countries we talk about. So getting the numbers and also having the available professional clubs, they are all there at your disposal, which is completely different than the United States," he said. "I think it is very difficult for us to overnight flick a switch and say, 'here is the traditional pathway for somebody.'"

For Friedel, training players and getting them ready for professional careers comes down to the professional clubs in the United States. It's the clubs' responsibility to teach and nurture talent while creating a pathway to the first team. There is still a place for college soccer in his mind, but it's the duty of MLS clubs, and not U.S. Soccer or college coaches or premier clubs, to mold players.

"As we grow in MLS, the onus is on us to get the correct pathways for young players," Friedel said. "And some players will benefit from going into college."

Gressel is one of those players.

Kevin Koczwara is a writer in Worcester, Mass. He's written for Howler, Rolling Stone, Deadspin and many more.

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