Right out of the gate, this post is mostly my opinion on the Julian Gressel contract situation — what I think is going on, why I think it sucks. To set the stage on that though, and I’ll be brief with it because this point is obvious...
Julian Gressel is a top-tier midfielder in Major League Soccer
Consider that thirteen players have registered 11 or more open play assists (real assists, not MLS assists) in a single MLS season since 2011 (“the stats era”). On this list are names like Sebastian Giovinco, Ignacio Piatti, Obafemi Martins, and Luciano Acosta (and Yamil Asad!).
Consider that only three players during this time have assisted 11 open play goals in a season multiple times: Michael Barrios, Landon Donovan, and Julian Gressel.
And to be honest, that would be enough for me. It’s a hell of a thing he does creating chances for his teammates at Atlanta United, and in 2019, he added more traditional through balls to his game which previously had been predominately exceptional crosses from the right wing. It would be fine if he was just a setup guy, but he’s not. He makes runs into the box and creates high value shots and is rewarded with goals. When he shoots the ball you can tell his technique is sound. He hurts the ball. His goals plus assists haul started strong in 2017 at 14, then rose to 15 in the title-winning year, and he finished 2019 with 17 combined goals and assists. There’s a lot of other stuff we could talk about with Gressel but we don’t really need to. He’s earned more than the salary he makes.
Being really good doesn’t mean you get paid more money in MLS
Julian Gressel is a member of the Major League Soccer Players Association (MLSPA) which has a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with Major League Soccer (they are due to ratify a new agreement ahead of 2020). The CBA contains rules that govern the relationship between the players and the league, which basically means if Gressel wants to play in MLS, he has to follow the rules set forth in the CBA.
Julian Gressel has a standard player contract with Major League Soccer and Atlanta United is the team that holds his rights. The MLSPA published Gressel’s base salary at $114K, which is much lower than his production for a team valued by Forbes at $500 million would indicate. Atlanta has exercised a team option on Gressel’s contract for the 2020 season, his third and final team option before a new contract is negotiated. Because Gressel makes less than $150K and played in 75% of the games in 2019, he is entitled to at least a 12.5% raise for the 2020 season. Based on the MLSPA published report it looks like he has received raises around 23% the last couple of years.
Let’s assume for a second that Atlanta United do not offer him what he’s asking for: a new large multi-year deal this off-season ahead of 2020.
When Gressel’s current MLS contract expires at the end of 2020, he will not be eligible for restricted free agency (he would need to play for 5 more seasons to be eligible for that under the current CBA rules), and Atlanta will retain his MLS contract rights so long as the club makes a qualifying offer to resign him. A qualifying offer is essentially 100% of his last salary (with a minimum 5% increase added to any option years in the contract). I think it goes without saying that Atlanta will make a qualifying offer at the end of his current contract given he is producing as a top tier MLS midfielder but being paid well below that.
Gressel will then have the choice of signing the new MLS contract with Atlanta or playing in a different soccer league (e.g. a European league or Liga MX). There is no other option available to him directly under the current MLS collective bargaining agreement. No waivers. No re-entry draft. Nothing. It is simply the Atlanta offer or he leaves MLS in this scenario.
Pause and reflect on how terrible that is. Now, consider that the only other outcome to all of this is Atlanta United and Julian Gressel agreeing to a new multi-year deal, presumably at a much higher salary before this point. But, why would Atlanta agree to offer him anything more than the minimum deal required by the CBA in order to secure his rights? Julian Gressel has proven to be a professional and I can’t imagine him tanking or sulking through 2020. He would most likely continue to play at a high level. As unfortunate as this is, one thing I feel confident in is that front offices do not pay more than they have to. Nay, the only economic reason MLS/Atlanta would offer Gressel a higher deal is if they were concerned he might run out his contract and then go play soccer in another league in 2021.
Upping the Ante
So that’s the game isn’t it? If Gressel wants to play in another league at the culmination of the 2020 season, he should run his contract out. If he fully intends to play in MLS long term but does not want a new contract that is significantly larger than the required offer he’s likely to see from Atlanta at the culmination of the 2020 season, he should run his contract out. If he fully intends to play in MLS long term but he also wants a new contract that is larger than the required offer he’s likely to see from Atlanta at the culmination of the 2020 season (it’s this one, folks), he needs to make sure Atlanta understands that he fully intends to play in another league when his contract expires — that only a new large contract offered well in advance of the end of the season could tempt him to stay.
Assuming he wants to stay and wants a bigger contract, he needs to make some noise, and he hasn’t done this yet. He needs to explicitly say that he’ll go back to Germany at the end of 2020. Maybe he should go check out some matches in Europe this Christmas and document himself doing so on social media.
You may recall that in November of 2018 Walker Zimmerman was “linked” with Club Tijuana after MLS rejected a TAM deal for him, and then suddenly in January 2019 he had a new deal with LAFC that amounted to a 200% raise.
You may recall that the rules require that for a homegrown player to take up a team’s supplemental roster spot (and therefore not count against the senior roster budget), they have to make less than $125K. You may also recall that Jordan Morris was trialing at Werder Bremen in early 2016 when he ultimately decided to join the Sounders on a homegrown deal that paid him north of $180K, thus causing MLS to create a new roster rule (“The Jordan Morris Rule”) allowing clubs to use targeted allocation money to buy down the first year of a homegrown player to the $125K mark.
Many other players have struggled to get paid what they thought was fair including Cyle Larin, Fabian Castillo, Darlington Nagbe, and Luciano Acosta and have had varying degrees of success doing so engaging in the global transfer/transfer rumor market.
Unless something remarkable happens in the CBA negotiations this offseason, this might just be the way it is in MLS. In order to gain what he truly desires, Gressel must be willing to leave it all behind (or at least to pretend to). As Elizabeth Holmes says, “You must set yourself on fire.”
Or, maybe just maybe Atlanta United will recognize the goodwill in the market that comes from extending a player like Gressel, someone who produces at a DP level and connects well with fans of all ages — recognizing of course that if they do, they have to sacrifice elsewhere in the roster build. Merry Christmas?