The Riverhounds latest roster addition of Josh Gatt was a unique moment for me – the boomeranging of a long-forgotten Colorado Rapids player back into my life. It was, if you will, my Old Ben Kenobi meme moment as a soccer writer.
(Spoiler alert – It will not later turn out, when we sit down to chat in my hut, that I am actually Joshua Gatt.)
I last saw Josh Gatt play with my own eyes for the 2017 Colorado Rapids. He joined the ballclub at the end of March that year as part of a trade with Minnesota United. The Loons were in their expansion year and had spent their first month in MLS learning that the defense that GM Manny Lagos and Head Coach Adrian Heath had crafted was utter crap – Minnesota conceded 18 goals in their first four matches, setting up the possibility that they might ultimately concede 153 goals on the season which would more than double the previous MLS record for defensive incompetence. The Rapids, meanwhile, were an aging team with a stout defense that hard a hard time finding the net. The team’s successful MO in 2016 was ‘defend like hell for 75 minutes, wait till the other guys get gassed in the thin Colorado atmosphere, nick an 80th minute winner, hang on for the whistle.’ It mostly worked, but that plan was likely to result in being mid-table and dull forever. So the two teams did a logical thing – Colorado sent seasoned veteran players of a defensive ilk – left back Marc Burch and defensive midfielder Sam Cronin – to Minnesota in exchange for midfielder Mohammed Saeid, Gatt, and an international roster spot.
In 2017, Gatt was a 25 year old winger with a reputation for two things: blistering pace, and injuries. At the time of the trade, MLS savant Sam Stejskal described him this way: “Once a promising US international before three major knee injuries derailed his career, the Michigan native has yet to appear in MLS action.” The rest of 2017 was a mild success for Gatt with the Rapids: 2 goals, 3 assists in 1067 minutes of action, mostly as a sub. He lead all Rapids players that year in Dribbles with 1.2 per game.
One of his two goals was this beaut that would ultimately turn out to be the game-winner:
Good morning #RiverhoundsSC fans.
— Soccer Rabbi (@soccer_rabbi) February 15, 2021
The only thing better than the goal was Gatt’s celebration – directly in front of the Away Supporters Section at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park:
— Soccer Rabbi (@soccer_rabbi) October 17, 2017
My two key reflections of Gatt at season’s end for the SBNation/Rapids website Burgundy Wave were these two things:
“As a winger, Gatt’s main job is to carry the ball into the final third or link up with other players to do the same, defend occasionally, and score occasionally. For the Rapids, Gatt was basically an average passer and link-up man, as he created goal-scoring chances at a fairly pedestrian 1.01 KP per game and connected passes at 71.6% rate.”
“The conventional wisdom of the Rapids fan base was that Gatt wasn’t a good finisher. Anecdotally, I think I agree. He missed some chances that he should have finished, especially early in the year against the Portland Timbers and the Philadelphia Union. (Here’s a link to some misses against the Union.)”
Gatt also had flashes that were undeniably eye-popping. He had more than a few moments where he put on a half-spin, a Cruyff-turn, or a nifty dribble that literally made a crowd of 15,000 yell ‘ohhh!’ With the ball at his feet, one-on-on with a defender, he had the capacity to humiliate his opponent and force the entire defense to shift to his side. If properly utilized and exploited, that’s a devastating force to have on your club. Colorado, unfortunately, rarely figured that out correctly.
The Rapids struggled in 2017 on all accounts. One of their two big DP signings of 2016, Shkëlzen Gashi, came into the season out of shape and promptly got injured. The offense sputtered. The replacement at left back, Mekeil Williams, was not good. The defensive midfield replacement for Cronin, Nana Boateng, got hurt. The strikers didn’t score. Tim Howard began to look like an aging, average, overpriced show pony. The head coach got fired in August. The team avoided the MLS Wooden Spoon by just a single point.
So of course the GM blew up the roster at the end of the season, and that included ditching Gatt. His option was not exercised at the end of the season, leaving him a free agent for 2018.
The next three years were seemingly forgettable, not just to soccer fans, but also, it seems, for Gatt himself. He spent two years with SC Rheindorf Altach in the Austrian Bundesliga, where he played some, but also missed more time due to injury. In a 2020 article for The Athletic, Gatt passed over two years of his life in two sentences: “Then I went back to Austria with Altach. It was tumultuous.” He moved mid-2020 to Dundalk FC in the Irish first division, where he played in just one match in six months.
So it is back to the US for a fresh start.
Gatt has a ton of professional experience, stretching back to his first club, Norway’s perennial powerhouse Moldë, and continuing to each of his next five clubs, and that should be of great value to a Hounds team that often tends to rely on young recent NCAA products. When Gatt was in his prime, he could give you Christiano François-level speed, but with better overall field awareness, like Jordan Morris or Justin Meram. Gatt was also an excellent forward defender for Colorado, playing for a team that demanded all 11 players be part of the defending. Add to that his accumulated wisdom as a player with knowledge of multiple systems and tactical schemes, plus the smaller-scale tricks-of-the-trade that make veteran players so useful, and you have a guy that could make a big contribution in Pittsburgh.
It is certainly true that Gatt is a classic risk vs. reward proposition: his technical ability and his experience exceed what you might normally see at the USL level, but his injury history and his past-prime physical state mean that he’s suitable to the US second division. The degree to which that latter proposition is true will be the difference maker in Josh Gatt’s impact for the Riverhounds. If his fitness is there, he can be an excellent playmaking wide piece on the right side, combining with Albert Dikwa and Anthony Velarde to power the attack. Or, he might be re-cast as the wily veteran in the middle to pair with Kenardo Forbes: a pair of pocket-passing pivots sending out runners and exploiting gaps in opposing defenses. Even as an off-the-bench option, or in limited use, 1000 minutes-a-year of Gatt mixed in with Russell Ciccerone and Alex Dixon could be perfect in creative a solid all-around club that looks are comfortable in defense as they look confident in the attack.
There’s probably some rust to shake off and a definite need to see how Gatt will integrate with the rest of his new Hounds teammates. But there is certainly potential that getting the in-form version of Josh Gatt on the Pittsburgh Riverhounds would provide a huge lift to the team; for the coming 2021 season and beyond.