D.C. United Acquire Elite Talent in Julian Gressel

Written By Harrison Hamm on January 23, 2020

The briefly dramatic Julian Gressel saga ended on Tuesday.

Atlanta United traded a dissatisfied Gressel to D.C. United in a blockbuster deal. D.C. gave Gressel a significant raise and are paying Atlanta up to $1M in allocation money. 

What the Gressel trade means for Atlanta and DCU

The trade is fascinating in a few different ways. It is another departure from the core of Atlanta’s inaugural 2017 team. Gressel is closely intertwined with the mobile, attacking mindset of the Five Stripes. He was the player who put together classy give-and-goes with Miguel Almiron and curved beautiful crosses into the box for Josef Martinez. We’ve never seen Atlanta play without him, so they will have to find a suitable replacement.

D.C. United is getting a unique player for a high price. Paying a million dollars for Gressel is like an NBA team investing in a younger Andre Iguodala. Gressel is at his best as an elite complementary piece, surrounding high-leverage stars who score the goals. He functions in any system or structure, but he provides the most value when he can be a supporting player who cycles the ball and does all the little things. 

Understanding his market value (perhaps higher than we thought) in the context of his skillset is interesting. D.C. are paying this sort of value for a player who is elite in his role, not necessarily as a first option. To make another NBA comparison, Gressel isn’t Kawhi Leonard; he’s Draymond Green. Evidently, that is a valuable player to have, particularly for an elite team contending for trophies.

DC getting a great deal in Gressel

Gressel is getting Targeted Allocation Money, not Designated Player money, so D.C. isn’t paying him a max contract, so to speak. In fact, this looks like a great deal for them. They’re getting a proven player who plays more positions than anyone else in the league. And they add an elite contributor without using a DP spot. 

Gressel’s scoring numbers were impressive with Atlanta; he had six goals and 12 assists in 2019, and 4g and 14a in 2018. His xG+xA per 96 numbers have gradually improved since his 2017 Rookie of the Year campaign. D.C. are getting one of the top assist producers in MLS. 

We’ll see if his numbers go down slightly away from Atlanta. They might also go down if he gets fewer minutes away from right back, where he is capable of playing. But in D.C., Gressel joins a new-look attack that has a chance to jump right into the elite conversation. New DP Edison Flores will be the creator, replacing Luciano Acosta, and Gressel’s former Atlanta teammate Yamil Asad will play on the left wing. Paul Arriola, a US national teamer, is similarly versatile to Gressel. 

Investing in a top-tier complementary piece is a smart move for D.C., and it shows how determined they are to jump up in the standings. Gressel is a championship sort of addition, and I’d imagine there were other teams vying for his services.

What was Atlanta thinking?

In some ways, it is surprising that Atlanta passed on the opportunity to hold onto a key cog. But Gressel’s prior contract, the one he signed after being drafted, was a massive bargain, at just $150,000 per year. Atlanta enjoyed a rare three years with an elite player at that price; I’d say they capitalized on that window. 

We don’t know how much money Atlanta could have paid Gressel in a potential TAM extension, because MLS does not publicize that information. But it’s safe to assume they weren’t offering anything up to what Gressel was seeking. D.C. is reportedly paying him around $700,000 annually. Atlanta decided that price wasn’t worth it.

They’ll add to the allocation haul they received from the Columbus Crew in the Darlington Nagbe trade. Some of that will have to be used to fill holes arising from these offseason departures. It remains to be seen whether they’re going to transfer Hector Villalba, which was expected heading into the offseason. They traded for Brooks Lennon, basically Gressel Lite, last month. Lennon is not near Gressel’s quality right now. 

Atlanta will have to contend with a revitalized D.C. in the Eastern Conference now. Gressel is the signing that could push DCU over the top.

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