Gressel relishing chance to play childhood idol

Atlanta United midfielder Julian Gressel is in the best form of his young career, but he has an extra reason to be excited to hit the field this weekend against the Chicago Fire. That's because the young German will be facing his childhood idol, Bastian Schweinsteiger, for the first time as a player.

“He went through the Bayern Munich youth system, and I'm a big Bayern fan so I knew him through that, but I think it all started with his first World Cup in 2006,” Gressel says. “That was the first time I remember thinking this is a great, great player.”

Since then, Schweinsteiger has won nearly everything there is to win, from the Champions League with Bayern Munich to a World Cup with Germany. But beyond his trophy cabinet and technical skills, it's his personality on the field that sticks out to Atlanta's German playmaker.

“He's a guy who's not afraid to get stuck in, to yell at a ref, to tackle, to yell at his own teammates, to be the guy that fights and does everything to win. That's how I would like to be, and something I look up to him and look at what he does just to learn from him.”

While he has gravitated toward the center of the park, Schweinsteiger started his career in Germany out wide on the wing. Gressel, too, can play in multiple areas of the attack, so the comparisons go beyond their country of birth. But while he's taken notes on the German legend's play his whole life, he's mindful of the importance of playing with his own style and skillset.

“He's one of the best players that's ever played the game, and you can learn so much from so many different players from that level. But at the end of the day, you have to be who you are on the field. I don't want to be Bastian Schweinsteiger, I want to be Julian Gressel.”

Playing his own game is working out just fine recently for ATL UTD's #24, with a goal or an assist in four straight games for the red, black and gold. If Gressel contributes to another goal again this weekend, he will match David Villa as the only MLS player to record a point in five straight games.

“Playing on the wing gets me in dangerous spots a lot more often, and I have a little more freedom in the final third. But I'm in good form, I feel good on the field, and it's been pretty fun the last four games to be able to be creative and provide some assists and score a couple goals yourself.”

Gressel admits he may try to swap shirts with Schweinsteiger after the game. But aside from impressing his childhood favorite, there's a few people back home in Germany he's hoping he can put on a good performance for as well.

“The match will be on German TV and I'm sure my family is going to watch every second of it.”

Gressel and his Atlanta United teammates are hoping to bounce back with a win against Chicago after their three-match unbeaten streak ended last week. The game kicks off at 4pm, and will be broadcast on UniMás and streamed live on Univision Deportes' Facebook page.