Joshua Gatt, a 21-year-old winger from Michigan who currently plays for Norwegian club Molde, could become the next household name on the USMNT.
Though his only appearance with the senior national team was in the friendly with Russia several weeks ago, Gatt is looking more and more like the team's best choice for starting right wing, should Landon Donovan not be available for qualifiers and beyond.
If that comes to pass, Gatt will quickly be the center of attention.
Donovan, of course, is the team’s best-known player. Among American fans, especially casual ones, he has been the face of the USMNT for a decade. Any young player who is seen as replacing Donovan will draw eyes and comparisons.
Gatt is not Donovan, at least not yet. Experience matters in this game. Donovan has competed in three World Cups. Less than three years ago, Gatt played soccer and ran track for Detroit Catholic Central High School.
Yet, there are indications Gatt will not only survive but potentially thrive in that kind of spotlight.
Why Gatt Is a Likely Starter
There seems to be a growing belief that Coach Jurgen Klinsmann tipped his hand at the Russia friendly. Without Donovan there, Gatt, in his first and only appearance for the national team, got the start at right wing.
That roster was heavily populated with players from European clubs. Presumably this was for logistical convenience, as the friendly was played in Krasnodar, Russia this November. Back in the U.S., the MLS season was racing toward its conclusion.
Klinsmann obviously didn’t know which teams would advance through the playoffs, but he did know there was a chance that Donovan and Graham Zusi wouldn’t be available.
Donovan has been a forward in varying USMNT formations, but he is generally viewed as a right-winger. Whether Klinsmann intends to use Donovan at that position in hexagonal games is conjecture at this point, as is Donovan’s availability for those World Cup qualifiers.
In Donovan’s absence, Zusi had been the starting right wing during earlier 2012 qualifiers. He was adequate in these CONCACAF qualifiers but seems to lack the quick-footed skills to become more than adequate at international speeds of play.
Gatt does have that quickness. And at faster speeds of play, his touch is better. He can turn more quickly and even at his young age has developed an intuitive ability to push defenders off balance while dribbling.
Gatt is more than quick, however. He's fast. Faster than Donovan ever was.
He's like DaMarcus Beasley except with ball control. Maybe not as quick as Beasley, but Gatt is just as fast in space, if not faster.
That kind of time might not concern Usain Bolt. But upon Gatt's arrival at Molde, the Norwegian website rbnett.no noted that the winning time at a recent national track and field competition there was only two-tenths of a second faster.
And did we mention he can control the ball at speed?
Without Donovan in the roster, Gatt is the likely replacement as starting right wing. With Donovan in the roster, Gatt could slide over to left wing, thus giving Klinsmann the flexibility to use Dempsey as attacking center mid or second attacker, depending on formation.
While Klinsmann has not spelled out his plans, we do know that he views Gatt as more than just a player for friendlies. Gatt got the call for an earlier qualifier against Jamaica but injured his hamstring in the next club game.
It was a fairly serious injury as hamstrings go. Further demonstrating this young player's importance to Klinsmann, Gatt said the U.S. coach helped find the specialists who could get him back on the field as quickly as possible.
Why Gatt Could Survive the Pressure of Scrutiny
Coming out of high school, the Michigan youth was offered a scholarship at Indiana. He turned it down to try his luck with European club play.
Though Gatt is sometimes described as being a little shy during interviews, that is the move of a player seeking pressure rather than hiding from it.
It was not a blind leap into the unknown. Gatt traveled to Switzerland for a youth tournament. His performance there drew interest from German club Mainz 05 and Austrian club Rheindorf Altach.
Gatt agreed to stay for a week of trials. He received an immediate offer from Altach, so he flew home and declined the Indiana offer.
At the second-tier Austrian club, Gatt appeared in 14 games and scored five goals in the fall of 2010. His performances caught the eye of at least one former attacker, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Solskjaer is best known for his appearances as a forward with Manchester United. Upon his retirement, he stayed within the United organization. In 2010, he was the coach of ManU's reserve team.
In January of 2011, Molde hired Solskjaer as manager. Completing the transfer of Gatt to Molde was among Solskjaer's first moves in the new position.
Gatt since has been a Molde regular, appearing in 41 games and contributing eight goals. He said in an interview this summer that that count is one short but acknowledged the play in question was difficult to see.
In that same interview, he mentioned a need to become more than an effective role player for his club and find more shooting efficiency.
The interview is telling for yet another factor (though if you cannot read Norwegian, even with web translation functions you have to read a little between the lines).
Gatt, faced with a hostile Valerenga crowd that was targeting him for verbal abuse and an opponent who was targeting him for physical abuse, met the challenge head on. He took it on himself to score the game’s only goal.
From his own initiative, the American winger from Plymouth has accepted larger team responsibilities at Molde. At only 21 years of age, Gatt is now a leader for his top-flight Norwegian club.
The Norwegian league, called the Tippeligaen, plays a similar schedule to MLS. Seasons run from March to November.
In Gatt's first season with Molde, the club won its first domestic championship ever. In 2012, Molde successfully defended that championship with 62 points in 30 games.
As a result, Molde and Gatt, who is on contract through 2015, will again compete in the UEFA Champions League qualifiers under the Champions Route (for league winners without an automatic entry to Group play).
In this year’s Champions League qualifiers, Molde won its first home-and-home matchup but fell to Basel by a 2-1 aggregate in the second.
The Tippeligaen season and Champions League qualifiers will present some difficulties with the USMNT’s hexagonal schedule. All World Cup qualifiers will be played during FIFA-scheduled breaks from club play and should not present a direct schedule conflict.
But given flight distances and just wear and tear that comes from playing outside a club’s fixture events, Molde will most likely prefer Gatt not make at least some of those flights.
Klinsmann, of course, is likely to exert the opposite pressure, assuming this article has a correct read on the youngster’s importance to the coach’s plans. If Donovan isn’t available, the coach’s insistence could tip the scales.
A club can have final word with respect to youth national team games. With the senior USMNT, Molde would have to allow Gatt to compete in qualifiers, if push came to shove.
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