It was just a few years ago that a speedy young American winger had just arrived at Borussia Dortmund and made a big impression on then manager Jurgen Klopp. U.S. national team fans were excited about the prospects of an American breaking through at a club like Dortmund, as was Jurgen Klinsmann, who was already drawing up plans for the exciting talent.
It was the fall of 2014, and the American player wasn't Christian Pulisic, who was in the early stages of settling in with Dortmund's youth academy around that same time. No, that player was Joe Gyau, who was in the midst of seeing his career skyrocket before the cruel timing of a terrible injury changed the course of his career.
Multiple knee surgeries, two full years on the sidelines and a foray into the lower divisions of German soccer have seen Gyau hit rock bottom, but the 25-year-old midfielder is working his way back, with the latest step in his career comeback taking place with German second-division side MSV Duisburg.
Duisburg is a short drive from Dortmund, but the path that took Gyau to his latest club was much longer and much more painful. It began back in the fall of 2014, when Gyau had broken through with Dortmund's first team, earning his Bundesliga debut under Klopp shortly after making his USMNT debut under Klinsmann. Then just 21, Gyau was emerging as an exciting attacking talent, with the speed and moves to torture defenders and excite fans alike. Current Huddersfield Town manager David Wagner had brought Gyau from Hoffenheim to the Dortmund second team that same year, and the move appeared to be paying off perfectly.
To some, Gyau looked like the future of the national team, so it seemed fitting that he would start alongside USMNT legend Landon Donovan in his national team farewell match. Gyau lasted 15 minutes in that match before planting his foot on the shoddy temporary grass field at Rentchler Stadium and suffering a knee injury that wound up being much more severe than he initially realized. What was originally a bone bruise led to surgery to remove loose cartilage, but complications led to major surgery that would keep him out another nine months. The ordeal continued even after his apparent recovery, as he found himself unable to get on the field at Dortmund, even with the reserves.
"The thing that got me the most about the injury was that I was so close, on the brink of breaking in," Gyau told Goal. "The season before that I was making my debut at Hoffenheim, then I went to Dortmund and broke into the first team. Then I was playing with the national team. I was making the rosters weekly for Dortmund, and then I got hurt.
"That’s what kind of killed me the most. Obviously such a long rehab process was also tough, especially for how long it was. Trying to stay motivated was definitely a tedious task."
Dortmund showed patience with Gyau, but at a certain point he felt as though he was stuck. Having already watched more than a year of his career lost to injury, he made the difficult decision to leave Dortmund in search of playing time, even if it meant going to a lower division.
"It was a decision I made because I was ready to play," Gyau said. "I was back in training for six months, and I saw that trying to ease my way back into a big club like that, the probability wasn’t going to be so high, so I didn’t do too much dilly-dallying. I was ready to play and I was ready to do whatever it took.
"(Dortmund) is a great club, and a great experience being there. It was bittersweet, my whole time there. The first six months were great, but after everything that went down I was just ready to go somewhere and prove myself."
Gyau's time away from the playing field made finding a new club much more difficult than he expected, and the process of finding a new home was a humbling experience that required him to make the most of the only opportunity that came.
"Coming from Dortmund I was thinking I’d make a jump to the second Bundesliga, or a first division someplace else, but that wasn’t the case," Gyau said. "People were very skeptical about my situation. It was too risky just to sign me off my club history. People were making it really difficult for me to find a decent move. Großaspach was the only team that was willing to take a chance on me."
German third division side SG Sonnenhof Großaspach gave Gyau the opportunity, and while he admitted feeling some trepidation, he wasn't about to pass up an opportunity and cost himself even more time after already losing two years to injury.
"I know the level in third league in Germany. It’s good, it’s still high-level football," Gyau said. "To a lot of other people, they hear third league they don’t think you’d want to go there and get stuck there. I didn’t think that way. I just wanted to get back, and make up on the time I lost, improve my game and get back into form."
Gyau did just that, enjoying an impressive season with the lower-league club and playing well enough to start generating interest from teams that only a year earlier wouldn't even consider him. Dusburg signed him after last season, and now Gyau is looking to take another step up the ladder as he rebuilds his career and attempts to reach the level he was getting to before that fateful night in 2014.
While Gyau may have lost time, he hasn't lost the confidence that made him one of the most exciting prospects in the U.S. player pool. He believes he has fully recovered from the injuries he endured and finds himself a more well-rounded player than the shifty winger U.S. fans were getting to know in his early days.
"My game has definitely matured a lot," Gyau said. "I was very hungry, I was very eager on the pitch when I was younger, but sometimes it might have been to my detriment. Maybe I wanted to do too much. Now my game is much more balanced. I’m able to make the right runs at the right times. I play the ball a little bit quicker to the guy whose in a better spot. That ambidexterity of my game has gone up, I can play it well with either foot. I’m also stronger. Two years of rehab will definitely have you ripped."
As for the trademark speed?
"The wheels are back like they never left," Gyau said with a laugh. "If you do rehab correctly then your leg will be back stronger than it was before. When i was playing before the injury I was playing off pure athleticism, god-given genes. I wasn’t really working on speed and everything that much, but now, after losing that, I had to get that back and then some. So I was in the gym every day, doing jumps, sprints, squats. The kid is definitely back with a vengeance."
Gyau admits that a return to the national team is still very much a goal, though he doesn't let the thought consume him like it did early on in his injury ordeal.
"In the beginning I thought about it a lot because I was in the mix," Gyau said. "Right before I made my debut against Czech Republic Klinsmann was telling me ‘You’re part of the team now. I want to have you on the roster for the Gold Cup in the summer. I want to have you in the cycle for the World Cup.’ Then I get hurt and all those things slipped away. That was definitely fresh in my mind.
"When I got back and slowly started to play again I realized that can’t be my sole motivation. You’ve got to keep your eye on improving because once you keep improving every training, every game, then that stuff will come automatically."
Gyau has become a bit of a forgotten man in American soccer circles, and it could be easy for someone in his position to be resentful of player like Pulisic, who has enjoyed the kind of career success many expected for Gyau. Not Gyau, who calls Pulisic a friend and can't say enough nice things about the USMNT star.
"How can anyone resent him? I'm happy for Christian. He's doing his thing and it's great for Americans to have him doing what he's doing," Gyau said. "He's doing his thing, and just him being there playing game in and game out for a good side like Dortmund, that’s busting down a lot of barriers. I feel like a lot more clubs will be more willing to pay bigger fees for Americans."
Though Gyau and Pulisic never played together at Dortmund, Gyau is still hoping to work his way back into the national team picture. He knows he still has a long way to go, but if the past few years have taught him anything it is patience and the importance of perspective.
"The next World Cup isn’t for the next four years," Gyau told Goal. "Until then, I’m just trying, on the club level, to establish myself, and keep leveling up and make enough noise that I get back in there. And hopefully by the time that World Cup comes I’ll be in the mix.
"Obviously, as I’ve learned, you can’t look too far in the future because you never know what can happen the next day."