Julian Gressel Shines in Playmaker Role as Atlanta United FC Books Playoff Spot

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Atlanta United FC‘s inaugural campaign in MLS will come with an added perk: postseason soccer.

In front of 43,006 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Five Stripes wrapped up a spot in the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs with a 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday. With the result, Atlanta became the first expansion team since the 2009 Seattle Sounders to clinch a playoff berth.

Heading into Wednesday’s match, the club had question marks over who would replace Miguel Almiron in the lineup. The Paraguayan number ten suffered a hamstring injury in Sunday’s victory over the Montreal Impact and will miss three weeks of action. As a result, Manager Tata Martino slotted rookie Julian Gressel into the role on Wednesday.

Julian Gressel Shines in Playmaker Role as Atlanta United FC Books Playoff Spot

And suffice it to say that the 23-year-old German took that responsibility and ran with it. Gressel not only opened up the scoring with a well-timed run and clinical finish in the 27th minute. He also assisted on Josef Martinez’s 18th goal of the season six minutes later. Not only that, but the magic on the field he helped conjure up appeared to rub off on his replacement when Gressel came off in the 87th minute.

Almost immediately after Jacob Peterson slapped hands with Gressel upon entering the game, he tripled the Atlanta advantage. Despite just 145 minutes of playing time in 2017, the 31-year-old veteran has made the most of his time on the field. His 88th minute tally was his third on the year, with all three coming off the bench. His 49.33 minutes per goal is actually lower than Martinez’s.

Thoughout the 90 minutes, Gressel, Martinez, Peterson and the rest of the Atlanta attack continuously peppered the Philadelphia net with an onslaught of shots. In total, the Five Stripes managed a fairly sizable ten shots on target. It’s testament to the goalkeeping quality of the Union’s Andre Blake, who made seven saves to prevent an even more lopsided scoreline.

Wednesday’s triumph serves as a continuation of Atlanta’s hot form since they moved into their new digs. They’ve played their last six at Mercedes-Benz stadium, winning five and drawing one. This despite a rigorous slate of games which will end on Saturday with seven games in the month of September.

The quick turnaround generated legitimate concern from fans about players getting overworked. That came to the forefront with Martino’s unwillingness to rotate the squad combined with Almiron’s injury. But having a “next man up” philosophy combined with solid depth is a huge element to success. Gressel’s superb performance in the hole underneath Martinez reinforced both those facts.

And it may have solidified Gressel’s case for this year’s Rookie of the Year award. He certainly got an endorsement from a veteran teammate on social media after the game.

The gauntlet that is Atlanta’s late season schedule does not end with Wednesday’s triumph. Saturday sees the team travel to Foxborough, MA to face the New England Revolution. The Revs will be looking to erase the memories of their historic 7-0 rout at Atlanta’s hands two weeks ago. Following that match, the Five Stripes have just two days rest before facing fellow expansion side Minnesota United for the first time on Tuesday.

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