FC Cincinnati winger Joe Gyau has packed so much into the first 27 years of his life that his career resembles that of a man 10 years his age.
Gyau made his first team debut for Hoffenheim at 19 alongside a 20-year-old Roberto Firmino. His full USMNT debut came three weeks before his Borussia Dortmund debut, when Jurgen Klopp subbed him on for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
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He tore his meniscus weeks later in his second cap for Jurgen Klinsmann, and battled two years to get back onto the field. Gyau went to the 3.Liga then back to 2.Bundesliga before relegation saw him make a move back home to Major League Soccer.
What we’re saying is it takes a lot to surprise him. The match that sealed Duisburg’s relegation to 3.Liga last season did just that.
So begins our conversation with Gyau.
ProSoccerTalk: A little background for the reader. You and I connected because I was headed to Germany with a soccer team and we had tickets for the Duisburg-Heidenheim match. I thought it would be neat for them to meet an American who’d made it to the top level and you were cool enough to agree to it, even inviting us to training.
This was months beforehand, and Duisburg was unbeaten in four matches. By the time we got to Germany, losing the match would’ve meant relegation. It was a sensational game, but Duisburg lost 4-3 and we witnessed an incredibly intense ending where fans were screaming across the pitch at players, beating sticks against the barriers that kept them from getting onto the field.
Understandably we didn’t meet. What was that like?
Joe Gyau: “Being in a relegation battle is one of the most pressured, anxious feelings that you have. You know that week-in week-out, for the well being of the club you’ve gotta get some points. Going into that game, we had won against Holstein Kiel 2-0 away. We knew if we won, we still had a chance. We left it all out there. Obviously the fans are heated. We had to go there to show them appreciation for supporting us. We had to show face out of respect. But that situation being in the 2.Bundesliga or Bundesliga is bragging rights for the city. The people felt like we let them down. They let us know that. They were screaming. They were mad. Some of the players felt attacked and they lashed out at the fans. It got really hectic.”
PST: That’s the point where, honestly, I was worried. The supporters were still packed in there, chanting in the players’ direction. A few fans hopped over the barrier and the ones in the stands were shaking the poles that hold up the protective netting (around the 4:20 mark of this video). What are you thinking at that point?
Gyau: “When I was walking over, I knew they were pissed. You know they’re really passionate about everything. For some people the club is their life, you know? They go to the stadium every weekend. And they felt like us getting relegated was them losing a big chunk of themselves. Walking over there, I recognized some of the fans from our training ground to watch practice. It’s funny how nice they were at the training ground compared to the cuss words then. I wouldn’t say I was scared, but it was shocking to see how enraged they were. Then in the locker room, it was just dead silent. Everybody’s got their heads down. The president, the coach, the general manager, they’re in the locker room and everybody’s quiet.”
PST: Duisburg has been the class of 3.Liga this year and looks to be getting promoted straightaway. Have you been pulling for them? And do you generally root for your former clubs?
Gyau: “(With Duisburg) There’s no bitterness at all. They had a great season this season. I still have friends that play there and we still talk. To see them get back in there is bittersweet with what happened in Copa 19, but that’s good for them. In Hamburg (on loan to FC St. Pauli). I met lifelong friends. At Dortmund I had the best moments of my career, and I was at Hoffenheim for four years. You could say that’s where I grew up. Germany is my second home. My wife’s from there.”
PST: Knowing that, and with an experienced career and name over there, why did you decide to come back to the United States and FC Cincinnati?
Gyau: “After being away for so long, my late teenage years and most of my 20s, I just wanted to switch things up and give my people over here a chance to see me a little bit closer (Gyau was born in Florida and grew up in Maryland). I was also at a good enough age that I could transfer markets.”
PST: I’m always impressed by the guys who come off a European season and then jump right into an MLS stretch run. I know there was a little break between 2.Bundesliga and your August debut, but what were your first impressions?
Gyau: “It was a short break because that summer I was with the national team. I typically keep myself in pretty good shape but getting right back into games I definitely needed a week or two. It was definitely a different style of play. It was a more open game, a little less tactical than I was used to in the Bundesliga. There was more space and I kinda liked that. There’s a lot of Central and South Americans as opposed to a lot more of a European-based pool.”
PST: I’m glad you brought up the call-up. After dozens of youth national team appearances, we saw you make your USMNT debut for Jurgen Klinsmann in impressive fashion versus the Czech Republic 2014, then suffer an awful knee injury in your second cap. There were multiple surgeries and grueling rehab. Then you get back into the fold with Gregg Berhalter against Jamaica in 2019.
Gyau: “It was a great moment, just getting that call. It kind of put the cherry on top of everything because that was one of my main goals after my injury was to get back to where I was. The two years, that whole process of rehab, was an unforgiving process. Getting that cap was the reward and it was great to revel in the moment. The game was in DC where I’m from and my whole family was able to come.”
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PST: Let’s go back to the start. You signed for Hoffenheim at age 17. Your father and grandfather were both professional players, so you had some advice and expertise to lean on. What made you choose Hoffenheim?
Gyau with Ryan Babel and Sandro Wieser at Hoffenheim (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images).
Gyau: “Germany was the first league that gave me a really concrete offer. I had gone and tried out at Chelsea before, but I was like 13 and my whole family would’ve had to relocate. Hoffenheim came at the right time. I was 17, able to be on my own, and I always wanted to play in Europe.”
PST: Hoffenheim was a loaded side, even simply by ‘Americans abroad’ standards. You subbed on for Fabian Johnson for your first appearance and Danny Williams was on the pitch at center midfielder. You’ve played with and against a lot of stars. Who stands out the most in terms of the wow factor.
Gyau: “When I was at Hoffenheim. Ryan Babel was an absolute monster when he was just coming off his time at Liverpool. And then I got to play with Firmino when he first came from Brazil. You could see his raw talent and as it became more refined where the flicks and tricks started working in the game. Aubameyang at Dortmund was a monster. Mkhitaryan as well, I was there for one of his best seasons. And for the national team, just being able to link up with Jozy Altidore was a great thing.”
PST: What makes those players so special? Everyone at that level is good, but what makes those players pop?
Gyau: “It’s about work ethic, confidence, and positive reinforcement. I’ve come across lots of players who have equal amounts of talent but maybe the situation with the coach isn’t great. The coach was behind Firmino 100 percent, at Dortmund the same for Aubameyang. You could see it.
“When (Aubameyang) first came to Dortmund he was playing on the wing cause Lewandowski was still there. He was still scoring and doing his thing, but it wasn’t what you see now. After Lewandowski left, that’s right when I came. They put him up top. Marco Reus would be behind him or Mkhitaryan and that’s when most of the plays would end up around him and he was always a natural finisher. He came into his own, and Jurgen Klopp always gave him the positive reinforcement to be able to excel. The guys always had it, but the reps and the experience pushed them to the next level.”
Gyau (right) with Ciro Immobile and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Photo by Team 2 Sportphoto/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
PST: Surely you’re tired of being asked about Klopp, but we all hear the Liverpool players raving about him. Does that match with your experience with him at Dortmund?
Gyau: “Man, just getting to know the guy, that’s the player’s ideal coach. For me, I was working with him and (now Schalke boss) David Wagner. Both of them were personable guys. They took me under their wing. They give you free reign. They still had their system but they let players express themselves. They let you work the way you work within their system. If you work hard, they are always going to be behind them. It’s one of those things where you go out on the field and you want to give 100 percent because you see how genuine they are and Klopp was really genuine.
“I remember when I got my first cap against Czech Republic, Klopp called everybody in the locker room and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got young player Joseph here, he made his international debut and had a great game.’ Everybody gave me a round of applause.
“After I got hurt he called me into his office. He knew that I was devastated and he said, ‘Hey I know the doctor didn’t give you good news but just know I’m behind you 100 percent. Whenever you come back I’ll be waiting for you. We’ll be ready. It was comforting because a coach doesn’t have to say that, especially to a young guy coming up. You don’t have to take him into your office and give him any type of reassurance but he took his time to do that.”
PST: You’ve also spent time in recent years with Sonnenhof Großaspach in 3.Liga and on loan from Hoffenheim a while back with FC St. Pauli. The latter is known for being a different kind of club. What do you recall from then?
Gyau: “Probably one of the best times I had in my career. Hamburg as a city is great but the club, the people, the stadium, the fans, they have their own progressive views. The support that you get game-in and game-out. The history behind it. You have St. Pauli and then HSV. The city is split in half and if you’re on that St. Pauli side, they love you. I’m 19, 20 at the time playing at the Millerntor. No matter you’re winning or losing the fans are cheering you on and positive.
“Not every club has that type of tradition that atmosphere. I remember there were times during the season where there was an amusement park outside the stadium. The Hamburger Dome. We’d be playing a game and before the game there was a roller coaster and people are going crazy. Then they come in for the game and afterwards the amusement park is rocking again. Then you have the Reeperbahn, and the restaurants. It’s just a buzzing city.”
(Photo by Oliver Hardt/Bongarts/GettyImages)
PST: Wrapping up, FC Cincinnati has a year under its belts and you had a full offseason plus additions of Siem de Jong, Yuya Kubo, and Jurgen Locadia. How are you feeling the club will look once it’s back to playing soccer?
Edit: FCC announced the hiring of Jaap Stam a day after this conversation.
Gyau: “We definitely have a real talented team this year and we’ve been given a chance to mold together. We had a couple late transfers. We’re not able to train full team yet but everyone’s able to grasp the philosophy behind the club all at once. Playing with Locadia, that dude can strike it with both feet, he’s mobile. We have a good group of guys, a good balance. I’m excited to get back when things get back rolling. And the fans here are also crazy. Our last game against Orlando, or when we played against Columbus, it’s 20,000 fans every game. It’s good to jump from getting a lot of fans in Germany right into the same atmosphere.”
PST: What’s the biggest difference you’ve noted since you’ve arrived in MLS?
Gyau: “In Germany it’s more strict. The fans really critique things so much harder than they do over here. The fans here are hoping to see a good game and ready to have fun. You would never see what happened in Duisburg happen over here. You wouldn’t see fans spitting on people, and it’s totally different style of play. They make the field so compact in Germany.”