“It never really sounded like they were going to get to numbers that we could make work on both sides,” Gressel said Thursday in training gear stamped with D.C. United’s black and red, not Atlanta United’s red, black and gold. “That is really when I decided it would be the best thing to work with the team on a solution as quick as possible.”
D.C. had long been enamored with Gressel, dating from his Providence College days. Here was the opportunity to acquire him.
So on Tuesday, as Atlanta was training in Bradenton, Fla., and D.C. was engaged in Springfield, Va., Gressel’s fortunes — figuratively and financially — took a turn.
The trade that shipped Gressel to Washington for $1.1 million in financial considerations further strengthened D.C.'s revamped attack and provided a new vantage point for the German-born midfielder.
“I am excited for this opportunity, for this new chapter,” he said in his first interview from D.C. camp, “and excited to maybe put a fifth [championship] star on the crest.”
Gressel is slated to earn $150,000 this season, and D.C. has pledged to offer a long-term deal that could increase his base pay fivefold. Atlanta, one person familiar with the previous negotiations said, was not willing to go over $500,000, in large part because of uncertainty around the next collective bargaining agreement, which, when struck, will set fresh parameters on team payrolls.
“We just were not finding a solution,” Atlanta Vice President Carlos Bocanegra told reporters this week.
Gressel said he could have waited for CBA talks to end before listening to Atlanta’s next offer, but “they kept dragging on and on.” And if they did not end soon, he said, other opportunities around the league might have dried up.
Playing all year under the current terms, he added, “I wouldn’t have been happy at all playing there. I don’t know if I could have, mentally.”
He said he was thankful Atlanta was open to trading him now.
D.C. believes both the high trade price and the substantial contract are worth it. Gressel, 26, was a key piece to Atlanta’s fast-charged, high-scoring attack that had taken the league by storm since the club’s 2017 expansion campaign.
Quickly claiming a starting role, which is a rarity for a player straight out of college, Gressel compiled a club-record 35 assists, as well as 15 goals, in three regular seasons.
He will join a squad that, after the offseason departure of three important attackers, including Wayne Rooney, suddenly looks as if it could become a serious scoring threat. Edison Flores, from the Peruvian World Cup team, and Yamil Asad, in his second tour with the team, are also new to the mix.
Midfielder Paul Arriola and striker Ola Kamara have returned.
“It will be a different type of attack than we had last year because of the profile of players we brought in,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “We are going to be scoring goals in different ways.”
Olsen has yet to define Gressel’s role; the first stage of Florida camp, starting Sunday, will help provide clarity, the coach said.
Olsen, though, is cognizant of Gressel’s ability to create opportunity.
“We have all seen once he gets in the final third [of the field] and the options he gives you,” Olsen said, adding Gressel has the ability to serve long balls into danger as well. “He has a nice range of service, and we need that. … It’s an exciting group, an exciting attacking group.”
Gressel is a right wing, the same position as Arriola, but long term, he said he sees himself in the center of the park as a two-way player.
“If there is a way to get comfortable in the middle, with a good partner next to me,” he said, “it’s a role I could grow into as well.”
To those who say he was the beneficiary of elite players in Atlanta, particularly scoring ace Josef Martinez, Gressel flips the script.
“Maybe he wouldn’t have scored some goals if it wasn’t for me.”
In Atlanta, the departure of a fan favorite has not gone over well.
“It was very sad to leave,” Gressel said. “It was a great time, and the fans have been absolutely amazing there. . . . Players will move on for different reasons. I am very thankful for the time I had there. I understood this move, and I hope the fans understand it, maybe with a little distance, not right away.”