MICHAEL ADUBATO - Thursday, October 1, 2020
There is no quit in Josh Gatt as the former U.S. national team prospect continues to play the game on his terms and it is in Ireland where he hopes to show that he's still got it.
Sometimes soccer can be a cruel sport. Take for example the Michigan native who looked to be on his way to a stellar career both at club and international level a decade ago.
At that time the teenager traveled to Switzerland and played with a team in the SuperElite system where he impressed enough to be offered trails at both German Bundesliga outfit FSV Mainz 05 and SCR Altach, a top-flight club in Austria. An offer came from Altach, so the young man bypassed the chance to play for Indiana University and started his European dream.
Gatt's performance during his first professional season didn't go unnoticed. As a matter of fact, he caught the eye of the new coach of Molde FK in Norway, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who had recently taken over the team that he played for before signing for Manchester United some 15 years ago.
In his first season in Norway in 2011, Gatt scored five goals in 22 league appearances as he helped the team secure the league championship. The following year Molde did the double. The winger also received a call-up to the national team but had to withdraw due to an injury.
The Michigander suffered his first serious injury while playing for Molde the following season. The knee injury, which required surgery, sidelined him for the rest of the season and it looked to bring his blossoming career to a screeching halt. He was unable to play the following season and featured only a few minutes the next, having suffered yet another injury.
After leaving Norway, with three league titles and two Norwegian Cup medals to his name, he spent time with Minnesota United and Colorado Rapids in Major League Soccer before heading back to Europe and Altach for a season.
Today, Gatt finds himself on the Emerald Isle of Ireland where he has signed on for the defending League of Ireland Premier Division champions, Dundalk Football Club. This is where Yanks Abroad caught up with the 29-year-old twice capped United States national team player.
How he ended up there is probably quite a unique story. It's because of an article written by ESPN's Tom Hamilton early this year.
"The owner (of Dundalk FC) read an article about me from ESPN about my career and everything that I've gone through and what I was currently going through and that I was without a team, and that I was looking to prove myself with a new one," Gatt began the conversation. "He just called me up and said that he wanted to give me an opportunity to do just that. So, I flew out here and went on trial; after the trial, they were interested enough to sign me."
His contract with the Irish champions is until November, which is the end of the season since the league plays a schedule pretty similar to MLS.
In these pandemic times, however, with soccer teams everywhere losing money as fans are not allowed to attend, it's an achievement in itself for a player to even find a team. For Gatt, there is also his injury history.
"People look at my history, what I've gone through in the past and they see that which constantly throws up red flags. They don't look at it from the side that I tend to look at it; the perseverance, the dedication, and how hard I've work to get back. I've heard it so many times that if it happens again (injury), he's done.
I think that's where people look at it. They don't really see the side of the fighting, the side of the pushing, the side of the work to get back. They just see the side that it happened and they immediately put a mark next to the name saying that if it happened this many times, it'll probably happen again. That's just not true."
It's hard to say how a player will perform after undergoing the knife, and even harder to say after multiple times but the Gatt feels that he is up to the challenge, both physically and mentally.
"Physically I'm as good as I've ever been," he said. "I think I'm stronger than I ever have been. I think I'm just as fast as I ever have been. When it comes to the on-field stuff, I cover more ground than most people do, than most professionals do on most teams in the world. So, I think my body's really solid."
Dundalk are defending champions but haven't had a great season. COVID-19 has changed so much for teams and especially in Ireland where the season was just getting underway when it was shut down. The team currently sits in fifth place, which makes it impossible for them to pull off a repeat or even grab the runners up spot. So what keeps the team motivated?
"There aren't a lot of games left, to be honest, or a lot of points available." Gatt explained. "I think if there was a situation where the (Shamrock) Rovers, the team just ahead of us bottled some performances and then they come to our place and we beat them, maybe. But as of right now we just didn't start the pre-COVID season well enough to stay competitive and that's the truth of it."
"We've had a different manager come in. We got knocked out of the Champions League (qualifiers) pretty emphatically, 3-0, even though maybe on a different day with the quality of players that we have and they have, we could have done better."
"I think our aspirations are to get into the Europa League group stages and we have a game coming up Thursday. I think it's important for us to find success in that tournament. We still have a cup that we can aim for, the FAI Cup, is still up for grabs. I think it's just important for us as a team to win as many games as we can and get back into a habit of winning since that was broken from the start of the season until now."
"We won our last two games, including a cup game so I think we're on a decent way and the upcoming European game is going to be monstrous. It's going to be a really important game for us as a club.
(Dundalk won that Europa League game 1-0 against Inter Club D'Escaldes from San Marino. Their next game is at home October 1st against Ki Klaksvik from the Faroe Islands.)
When it comes to getting out there and playing, Gatt is still biding his time.
"I really haven't been playing much, to be honest. I've played maybe 50 minutes this season. Whether it's because of a lack of games or something, I haven't really been given the opportunity that I really thought that I was going to get (when I arrived). But I'm trying to be patient. I'm trying to wait, but it's a tough situation. The team hasn't been outrightly, extremely successful. So as a player you want to try to help, to get in there and make a difference. I really haven't had the chance and I'm just waiting for it," he said.
With his pedigree and success in European leagues that are rated so much higher by UEFA than where he is now, it just seems odd that although fit and proven that he belongs there in the short time that he has had to show what he is made of, the American is just not being called upon.
"I don't know why," Gatt continued. "I can only speculate from a player's point of view, but probably from another point of view, they think that others on the team are performing better. It's just basically an opinionated sport and unfortunately, right now I'm just not being given the opportunity to prove that I can be a player that is useful and helpful for the team.
"I have had teams where I had the opportunity; I have had a decent amount of success where I proved that I could be a useful player, especially with creating goals, but so far I just haven't had that chance yet. I'm just waiting for my chance, but obviously, if it doesn't come then there's really nothing that I can do about it."
With the contract and the season running out, with half a dozen games remaining in the season, the journeyman is considering his future come November and where he'll end up.
"I don't know (if I would stay at Dundalk), to be honest. It depends. I just want to have an opportunity to play. That's what it boils down to," said Gatt. "I work really hard; I put in a lot of work and I've done a lot of things to get myself back to the point where I can play and I just want a chance to be able to play. I want to be able to get the chance to show what I can still do because I can still do a lot. I prove it day in and day out here in training. If people are worried about my health; I've been healthy all season. Physically, I've had no injuries so I've been available, it's just that I haven't gotten the opportunity."
"I just want to be somewhere where I'm given the opportunity to play some games because I think that I have a lot to give and I'm just waiting for the chance to show that."
"(Ireland) is a level that I'm comfortable with. It's not anything that's overwhelming for me at this point so I'm just waiting for the chance to show that I can be useful. In the brief time that I did play in a game where I had 45 minutes, I subbed in at halftime and we were losing 2-0 after the 50th minute. I created three chances in the game and I also put two balls on my teammates' heads inside the 6-yard box and they missed the target. What else do you do? It's just that sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn't. Now I'm just continuing to show that I can do those sorts of things on a regular basis."
There was obviously a sense of frustration in Josh's voice as he spoke about his time in Ireland but at the same time, being a professional since he was a teenager, he understands how the game works and conducts himself in a professional and positive light.
"It just boils down to the manager's choices and whatever he decides. As a player, you just have to support him whether you agree with him or not. I've been waiting; I've been patiently waiting, but I don't know if it'll come to be honest.
I think if the opportunities come, I can show that I'm still a quality player because I know that I am, I can bring a lot to a team," he said.
With the trials and tribulations, this guy who has gone through in both his private and professional life, you wouldn't blame him for giving up. At this point, he doesn't consider that an option.
"The reason that I'm still in the fight is because I've sacrificed a lot and put in a lot of effort to be where I am right now. All I'm looking for is for someone to gamble on that effort a little bit and say he works hard, he's there, let's give him a shot. I don't think it can really get much worse so I'm just hoping for my chance. It just hasn't come yet," said Gatt.
"I'm hungry, I'm patiently waiting and still looking to prove myself. All I want is an opportunity to play and show that I still have a lot to give and a lot of talent."
Josh Gatt is still young and fit, with league and cup medals and national team caps in his back pocket. I wouldn't bet against him.