Thrust into playoff race, Whitecaps see Julian Gressel’s fire rekindled

·5 min read

VANCOUVER — Having something to play for again has stoked Julian Gressel’s soccer passion.

The Vancouver Whitecaps obtained the wingback from DC United in a late July trade. Gressel went from a United team with the worst record in Major League Soccer to a Vancouver side in the thick of a battle for a playoff spot.

“To have really meaningful games to close out the season, that’s what you want,” said Gressel, soaked in sweat after a training session under a blistering hot sun this week. “In D.C., a miracle would have needed to happen for us to make the playoffs. Here, it’s within our grasp.

“We take care of our business, we can do it. That kind of absolutely brought that fire and that energy more back. It’s definitely a different feeling.”

The Whitecaps will be looking to climb back over the playoff line again when they host Nashville FC Saturday night at BC Place Stadium.

Heading into the weekend Nashville (9-9-9) sat sixth in the Western Conference with 36 points.

The Whitecaps (9-11-7) were eighth, but at 34 points were titled with the LA Galaxy, who currently hold the seventh and final playoff spot. The Galaxy have one more win than Vancouver and two games in hand but have played three fewer away games.

Just four points separate Nashville from 11th place Colorado in the tight Western standings.

Born in Germany, the six-foot-one, 185-pound Gressel attended Providence College. Atlanta United made him a SuperDraft selection in 2017. Gressel helped Atlanta win the MLS Cup in 2018.

Known for his vision and ability to distribute the ball, Gressel is one of the league’s best chance creators and crossers. He has 20 goals and 59 assists in 177 career games.

“It’s been a trademark for me in this league to mostly set up guys and create goals, create chances,” he said. “I want to do that here.

“That’s why they traded for me to have an impact on the score sheet, creating chances going forward and at the same time doing my job defensively.”

Since coming to Vancouver, Gressel made a brilliant steal, then pass to set up Ryan Gauld’s first of two goals in a 2-1 home win against Colorado Aug. 17.

Last Saturday, Gressel scored his first MLS header in the 87th minute to salvage a 1-1 draw against Real Salt Lake and claim an important away point.

Vancouver coach Vanni Sartini said Gressel adds a new dimension to the Whitecaps attack.

“It brought a different kind of quality in being a winger,” said Sartini. “Julian brings that offensive quality in crossing and shooting from distance that other wingbacks didn’t have.”

Gressel is also adaptable. He can play either side at the back and can be moved into the midfield.

“For me to adapt to a different position, I think it shows I’ve adapted quite well to the tactical system and Vanni trusts me in various spots,” he said.

He joins Tosaint Ricketts (Toronto, 2017) and Sebastian Berhalter (Columbus, 2020) as the only Whitecaps to win an MLS title.

“He knows how to win,” said Sartini. “He knows how to perform in a training session of a wining team. That kind of experience helps the other players step up.”

Nashville has just two wins in their last eight games (2-3-3) but have one of the league’s most dangerous goal scores in Hanny Mukhtar. He comes into the weekend second in MLS with 16 goals.

“They have dangerous guys that can change the game in an instant,’ said Gressel. “Tactically, they have a really clear identity. They have quality going forward and a clear way of playing.

“It’s going to be a tough match. Hopefully we can come out on top. We can have those moments of brilliance within our team to put us over the edge.”

NASHVILLE SC (9-9-9) at VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (9-11-7)

BC Place Stadium, Saturday, 10 p.m. ET

INJURY REPORT: Vancouver forward Deiber Caicedo is out for the season following meniscus surgery on his right knee.

FIRST TIME: This will be Nashville’s first visit to BC Place Stadium. The Caps settled for a 1-1 draw in Nashville July 30.

BEST FOR LAST: Gressel’s goal in the 87th minute for a 1-1 draw with Real Salt Lake Aug. 19 was the ninth time the Whitecaps scored a tying or go-ahead goal in the 86th minute or later this season. Vancouver has collected an MLS-high 14 points on goals scored in the final five minutes this season.

GOOD AS GAULD: When Gauld set up the tying goal against Real Salt Lake it was the third straight Whitecaps’ goal the midfielder had been involved with (two goals, one assist). Gauld has contributed to nine of Vancouver’s last 12 MLS goals (four goals, five assists).

HANDY HANY: Mukhtar contributed a goal and an assist in Nashville’s 4-0 win over Dallas Sunday. Mukhtar has been involved in 25 goals this year, scoring 16 and assisting on nine. It also was his fourth game with three goal contributions this season.

WOMEN’S NIGHT: As part of the Whitecaps celebrating women and girls in sport Saturday, three women will be part of the officiating crew. Felisha Mariscal and Meghan Mullen will be assistant referees while Carol Anne Chenard will be the video assistant referee.


This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 26, 2022

Jim Morris, The Canadian Press