BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Josh Gatt is one of the top young prospects in American soccer and this week he will play the biggest games of his career when Molde open their 2012/13 UEFA Champions League campaign.
Gatt, 20, joined Molde last season and played an important role in helping the team win its first ever Norwegian title in 2011. As a result they will begin their Champions League run on Wednesday in the second qualifying round where they will face Latvian champions FK Ventspils.
Despite the daunting task of having to win three qualifying rounds before the group stages, Gatt is optimistic about for his team's chances.
"For us, these beginning games are exciting but they're nothing to get overwhelmed about," Gatt told YA. "We have to perform well. We are taking it one game at a time. But if we're on our game, we can be a really tough team to play. I think we have a legitimate chance to make it to the group stages. There is enough belief in our team that we have the talent to achieve that goal. It all starts with these first games."
Gatt and his teammates do not know much about FK Ventspils but Molde head coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has stressed to his players that the game should dictated by Molde and they should not alter their style depending on their opponent.
The style of play that Solskjaer has brought to Molde is one that fits Gatt perfectly. The former Manchester United great has implemented an attacking style that has dominated opponents in Norway. For the speedy Gatt, this is the ideal approach to fit his style and he credits Solskjaer with his development over the last 18 months.
"He's been the best coach I've had," Gatt said bluntly. "He took me when I was a young and raw player and he made me into the player I am today. I'm very happy about that because I feel that I am a much better player than I thought I would be this early in my career. It's all because of him. Right now, there is no other coach that I would rather play for than him. He, in my mind, is the best there is."
After winning the title last year, Molde is in a battle for the Norwegian crown in 2012. They currently sit in second place and trail leaders Stromsgodset by four points.
Gatt is pleased so far with both the team's effort and his own personal performances. So far this season, Gatt has scored four goals and also picked up four assists.
"We are on top of our game and we are winning," Gatt pointed out. "I think personally for me, I've been playing very well lately. I'm fully back from a hamstring injury earlier in the season."
The differences between Gatt's performances this year and last year are rather significant. Last year he was able to impose himself on the games with his speed, but this year he has made progress in becoming a complete and sophisticated player.
Last season Solskjaer experimented with playing Gatt at right back but that has not been the case this year. Gatt has been able to focus entirely on moving forward at his natural wing position and this has helped him work on other aspects of his game.
"I'm no longer a right back and I'm playing strictly as an attacking winger," Gatt said. "I've built up a good chemistry with my teammates so I can read the overall game better now. My biggest improvement is that I'm more confident. I've had a good start but it's not an end result,. I want to get better every game and work on specific things like finishing and crossing. I'm doing well and have gotten better on the ball with dribbling and attacking. I also feel I am seeing the field better and have a greater understanding of the tactics of the game. This has allowed me to be more involved and pick up more assists."
For Gatt, he is improving quickly and there has been talk in the media about how much longer he will remain at Molde. The Norwegian league is not considered to be a top league in Europe and is generally thought of a place where younger players like Gatt develop only to be eventually sold to bigger clubs.
When he first left for Europe in 2010, he signed with Altach of Austria's second division. He lasted at the club for only half a season before transferring to Molde.
Earlier this year Gatt signed a three year extension at Molde but he does admit that he has ambitions to get to one of in the elite leagues of Europe. Specifically he considers the English Premier League and the Bundesliga to be his favorites.
"As for Norway, I think it is a great league," Gatt said. "I love playing here but I would hope that if I continue to improve, that I can see my career go farther. I want to be able to make that jump into the big leagues. I'm striving to reach my dreams. But right now, this league is where I need to be at this stage of my career."
"It wasn't a hard decision to sign the contract extension," he continued. "I would do anything for my team and the best thing for my team was to sign that extension. I plan to play here as long as it is appropriate but if the right opportunity comes that takes me to a bigger club, I think any player in my shoes would make that move. My goal is to be the best player I can be here at Molde and then see if I am good enough to take my career to the highest levels."
As quickly as Gatt is progressing, he is still yet to have an opportunity on the international stage at any level. In fact, his presence was sorely missed on both the 2011 US U-20 and 2012 U-23 teams.
In 2011, Molde declined to release Gatt for the 2011 U20 World Cup qualifiers and the team subsequently failed to qualify. Earlier this year, Molde recalled him for their season opener (where he would start and score the game-winning goal) prior to the Olympic qualifying tournament and the U-23s also did not advance to the London games.
"I'm always disappointed to hear when my nation loses and for me not being able to help the team, it [stinks]," Gatt recalled. "For the U-20s, I think that stung a little more because I think I would have contributed more for them than I perhaps would have for the U-23s. [US coach] Caleb Porter played [a similar] starting lineup every game. I don't know if he would have put me in there or not. But I would have loved to have been a part of that Olympic team and if called upon, help them to have qualified."
The youth national teams are now a thing of the past for Gatt but US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has said publically that he has the young American is on his radar.
The US team began World Cup qualifying last month and their performances were mixed. Gatt chooses not to focus much on the US team and prefers to concentrate on his responsibilities with Molde. If he continues to progress as the rate he has, a callup to the US team is almost surely in his future.
Until that comes, however, he won't think much about it.
"Obviously, I would love it if I got a call for the US team but it's not something I sit and dwell on," Gatt concluded. "To be honest, I've been focused on what I have to do here at my club and really have not had the time to follow their qualifying rounds that closely. I take what I do here very, very seriously. I support the US team and I hope they do well, but right now I'm not part of that team. I want to give my whole focus to Molde. I've got a lot to do here."