Joe Gyau was at his parents' Maryland home last summer, playing pool with his little sister Mia, when the phone rang. It was his agent. Hoffenheim, the Bundesliga club that signed the now-22-year-old Gyau as a teenager, had agreed to a transfer fee with Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund wanted him to sign the paperwork tomorrow. Could he get on a plane?
Gyau ran upstairs to tell his parents, Amina and Philip. The family had a brief freak-out over the good news before Gyau packed his bags. The next morning he boarded a flight to Germany. He began training that very week.
"It all happened so fast," he remembers now.
Gyau had endured a difficult 2013-14 season with Hoffenheim, and he'd wanted out for months. The move to Dortmund represented just the kind of fresh start he needed. It wasn't necessarily going to be easy—he suddenly found himself at a bigger club than any other American player—and some expected him to fail. But Gyau spent the next three months in a kind of surreal dream world, where everything he wanted to happen happened.
Manager Jurgen Klopp, considered one of the best soccer minds of the last decade, took him under his wing and began giving him minutes. His new teammates, guys like Marco Reus—the league's best player—and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, gave him tips on his movement and how to better use his best asset: speed.
But what goes up must come down. Today, Gyau's not on the field beating an offsides trap, but walking on crutches. And Borussia Dortmund, a team that was in the Champions League final just two years ago, is somehow broken. As of this writing, Dortmund is in third-to-last place in the Bundesliga. If things don't improve, the club could get relegated, and Gyau, when he recovers, may find himself not contributing to title challenges, but grinding through Germany's lower divisions.
It would be a step backwards for Gyau, who worked his way through Germany's lower divisions for much of his young career. Hoffenheim, a relatively small club in southwestern Germany, had kept tabs on him since watching him play in a U17 national team match against Brazil in 2007. After signing with the team in 2009, Gyau learned the German language and the German approach to soccer, making his way through Hoffenheim's various youth teams.
In 2012, he spent a year on loan with Hamburg's St. Pauli, making 15 appearances in the Second Bundesliga, Europe's strongest second division. St. Pauli gave Gyau a first taste of professional soccer, and he played well enough that Hoffenheim told him he'd be with the Bundesliga squad when he returned. Instead, he found himself playing with the second team—the reserves—in the regional and largely semi-professional fourth division.
"The coaches never even had a meeting with me to tell me anything," Gyau says of his return to Hoffenheim. "When I got back from Hamburg, they gave me a phone call. The coach didn't even give me a phone call. They sent a text to my agent and then my agent [told me] I had to call the second team coach and let him know I was training there."
The subtext was clear: Hoffenheim's head coach, Markus Gisdol, who'd arrived when Gyau was in Hamburg, didn't want him.
This wasn't the first time a Gyau had experienced a professional setback. Joe comes from a long line of professional soccer players. His grandfather, Joseph, played internationally for Ghana. His dad made six appearances for the U.S. national team in the 1980s and 1990s. His sister Mia is a current member of the U.S. women's youth setup. Gyau was too young to see his dad play for the USMNT, but he does remember attending a beach soccer tournament in Monaco when he was about six and seeing his dad play with infamous French international Eric Cantona.
With the Hoffenheim reserves, his family encouraged him to treat every second team game as though the world might end tomorrow. He only had one shot at a professional career. Regret nothing. Gisdol eventually took notice and gave Gyau his Bundesliga debut toward the end of the season.
"They tried to play me a little bit and be like, 'Oh, we're playing you again. You're back in focus. Why would you want to leave right now?'" Gyau says. "But after all that I didn't buy that for two seconds. I didn't want to be there anymore."
Dortmund, Gyau realized, had a completely different vibe than Hoffenheim. It wasn't just the club, where he quickly felt at home playing first under David Wagner—a former U.S. international and current head coach of Dortmund's second team—and later under Klopp. The whole atmosphere was different.
The city of Dortmund is part of a major metropolitan area in Germany's Ruhrgebiet region, which is the country's equivalent to the American rust belt. Once the heartland of the coal and steel industries, the region is also the cultural epicenter of football. Borussia Dortmund was founded in 1909 and is one of Germany's most successful clubs. It has geschichte—history.
Hoffenheim, on the other hand, isn't really a city at all. It's a village of just over 3,000 people in the hills between Heidelberg and Stuttgart. The club TSG Hoffenheim rose through the lower tiers of Germany's soccer pyramid thanks to the investment of local tech billionaire Dietmar Hopp, who grew up in the village. Because the club never achieved anything of note prior to Hopp's investment, it's not widely respected. It has keine geschichte—no history. Today, the club plays in Sinsheim, a town near Hoffenheim with about 35,000 residents. Sinsheim is little more than a glorified truck stop and the butt of many jokes from fans of more historic and well-supported teams.
Of course, back in the states, few people know about living conditions and fan support and other off-field factors that matter to players. And, across the Atlantic, many USMNT fans were dismayed that Gyau had agreed to the move. It meant he'd be competing for playing time with Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, maybe the only player at Dortmund faster than Gyau.
"Everybody was saying, 'Oh my God! Why is he going there? He's not even going to play,' and blah blah blah," remembers Gyau.
Adding to the confusion were reports that Gyau had signed a contract to play for Dortmund's second team, BVB II, which plays in the third division. It appeared from a distance as though, rather than compete against Dortmund's elite players, he'd taken a step down. He'd just made his Bundesliga debut, why head to the third division?
It's true that Dortmund planned to integrate Gyau into the club setup through Wagner and BVB II, but Gyau signed what he calls a "regular Bundesliga contract." The goal was always for him to contribute, eventually, under Klopp—not in the third division, but in the Bundesliga.
Jurgen Klopp. Image via Witters Sport-USA TODAY Sports
What nobody expected was for Gyau to contribute as early as he did. Gyau stands a muscular 5'9" with pace and a low center of gravity that makes him difficult for defenders, who are typically taller and slower, to catch and then push off the ball—traits that make him perfect for Dortmund's explosive of play. He spent a short time training with BVB II and working with Wagner to learn how Dortmund played before heading to preseason with the first team. Wagner and Klopp worked with Gyau primarily on his off-the-ball movement and his defensive positioning. They taught him the gegenpress and counter-attacking tactics that Klopp made famous while winning back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012. The coaching staff was so impressed they had him starting preseason matches. In a friendly against Heidenheim, he even scored the winner.
"It was a matter of just having a fresh start and having people who genuinely wanted me to do well," says Gyau.
When the season began, Gyau was in the form of his life. He made Klopp's bench against Mainz and Schalke. In September, USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who values Americans paying in the pressure cooker of European soccer over the less competitive and relegation-free MLS, called Gyau into a short training camp prior to a match against the Czech Republic. Gyau played well and Klinsmann summoned him to his office the night before the match. You'll be starting tomorrow, he said.
"I couldn't believe it," Gyau remembers. "I was so happy. You know, my first real call up and I'm going to be starting? It was like, things were happening! This is what I've been working for my whole time in Germany."
Just a few days later, back in Dortmund, Klopp gave him another debut. In a match against Stuttgart, Gyau came on in the 74th minute. He was on the field when Dortmund completed its fight back from two goals down to finish 2-2.
Gyau's parents missed both matches, but they were there for his next appearance under Klinsmann.
"We were training at Harvard University for about five days before we went to Connecticut and played against Ecuador," remembers Gyau. "In training, I was performing really well. You know, using my speed, doing all the things coach Dave and coach Klopp had discussed with me."
Against Ecuador, Klinsmann gave him another start. It was Landon Donovan's final game for the national team. A special moment for fans of U.S. soccer, it was also a big game for Gyau, who'd grown up watching Donovan and was now standing beside him, wearing the same jersey.
"I was just thinking, Man, all of this is just a dream come true," says Gyau. "All of the stuff I've been working hard for is just coming through. We started the game off really well. Right in the beginning of the game, we scored right off the counter. Everybody was buzzing. I was buzzing. My whole family was there. And then, that one play, I beat the guy down the sideline, and, like, I slipped. And I felt this thing in my [left] leg. It wasn't a pop or anything, I just felt this pain in my leg. Like, I tried to run back on defense, on a counter, and I think the ball went out and I went down.
"The first thing that was in my head was like, Damn. I don't want to be sitting out now. All this stuff is finally happening. I didn't want to get injured."
What was initially diagnosed as a torn meniscus turned out to be a bruised bone and some minor cartilage damage. He had an operation, and was back training with BVB II about a month later, working hard to regain match fitness. During some extra running after practice, the pain returned. The club told him to take it easy, and that's what he did over the winter holiday. But when he returned to training, it was still there. An MRI revealed some catilage damage beneath his kneecap.
"When they told me I had to get another operation, oh man," says Gyau. "This was the longest time I'd ever been away from the game. I couldn't help but shed some tears. I was tasting everything one moment and the next moment I'm out."
"I know I'll be back," he continues. "It's not a serious, crazy injury. And just a lot of guys are really nice about it."
He was fortunate not to suffer any ligament damage, and the doctors gave him a good prognosis. But knee injuries have derailed more than one promising career, and fans are quietly worried he'll never regain his blistering speed. It's a question nobody can answer until he gets back out on the field, something that won't happen for at least two months.
There are false reports that his contract is running out, which he insists is not true. The contract runs through 2016. "If I was injured right now and my contract was running out, then I'd be scared," he says with a laugh. "But my contract is not running out."
"Everybody is behind me," Gyau continues. "So yeah, you can throw that thing out the window with the one-year [contract] thing. They're waiting for my comeback and I know that they're going to help me get back to 100 percent, and I know, for sure, that I'm going to get back to 100 percent. It takes time."
For now, all he can do is wait. He took a small pay-cut to get to Dortmund, to get a fresh shot, but in a sense, the present situation is not much different than his last year at Hoffenheim: he's watching the first team from afar.
This time, it's not just his own future that's uncertain, but the future of the whole club. Dortmund is a team filled with top notch talent, but, in part because of a rash of injuries like Gyau's, it can't seem to convert talent into consistent wins. Klopp is, for the first time, facing real questions about his future. On Thursday, he told the gathered press he wouldn't quit, and the board, for the time being, has guaranteed his position. A win over the weekend moved the team out of last place, but the club is still in danger of relegation. If things don't continue to improve, Klopp, the guy who gave Gyau his first chance, might not be around to give him a second.