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U.S. Winger Joe Gyau, 21, Discusses Bundesliga Debut

After several false starts and one near-miss, Tampa, Fla., native Joe Gyau finally made his Bundesliga debut for Hoffenheim last weekend. The speedy winger is hoping to build on that big moment.

BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
May 02, 2014
2:58 PM
MORE THAN TWO YEARS AGO, in the dying moments of a dull, scoreless draw between Hoffenheim and Hannover, Joe Gyau experienced a moment he would never forget.

It was January 21, 2012 and then-Hoffenheim coach Holger Stanislawski turned to then-19-year-old Gyau and told him to suit up and enter the match.

Here it is, Gyau thought, my Bundesliga debut.

The Tampa, Fla. native stood up, checked in with the fourth official, and his name appeared on the stadium’s scoreboard, as is the custom. But just before he could step on the field, referee Christian Dingert blew his whistle and Gyau was not credited with an appearance.

At the time, it did not appear as if the missed opportunity would be that big of a deal, as Gyau’s debut seemed imminent. But as fate played out, Gyau did not get another chance that season. And then he spent the entire 2012-13 campaign on loan with St. Pauli of the 2.Bundesliga, where he saw just 550 minutes of action in 15 appearances. Following that season, Gyau returned to Hoffenheim.

As the 2013-14 season approached, Gyau had opportunities to go out on loan again, but the speedy winger was determined to stick it out at Hoffenheim. While top American players like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley were content to return to MLS, Gyau always dreamt about succeeding in a top European league.

“I’d been working hard for it for so long that I didn’t want to cut it short and come home," Gyau told American Soccer Now. “It actually turned out to be the right decision."

Gyau began the year with Hoffenheim's U-23 team and dug deep to find the motivation he needed.

“I didn’t try to dwell on [last season] too much,” Gyau said. “I just tried to improve daily when I was with the second team. From game to game, I was just looking at it like it was a championship game–just another chance to get better. I was able to score a few goals for the team. I got a lot of minutes, more so than in other seasons, which was good.”

Gyau knew he would have to grow as a player in order to break into the first team and see his first Bundesliga action. In particular, he wanted to focus on his finishing. As a speedy natural winger, Gyau always had the skill necessary to beat defenders on the dribble, but ”working on what comes after that, the final ball” is what he felt was missing.

His hard work began to pay dividends. He started 26 times for Hoffenheim’s U-23 team this season, and he delivered goals—seven in all competitions. And then Gyau earned a breakthrough of sorts in a recent inter-squad scrimmage between the Hoffenheim's first and second team. Gyau was selected to play for the first team and impressed with a two-goal outing.

“I was just working with my head down and then all of a sudden the first team coaches came to me and said that they’ve been following my progress with the reserve team,” Gyau recalled. “From then they really had their eyes on me and then they just brought me up. Ever since then, I’ve just been trying to take steps forward.”

Three weeks ago Gyau was called up to the first team for a game against Augsburg, but he was an unused substitute. The same thing happened the following week in a match against Werder Bremen.

Last weekend, however, almost 30 months after nearly making his Bundesliga debut for Hoffenheim, Gyau was finally given the opportunity. He came on in the 69th minute against Eintracht Frankfurt in what would end a 0-0 draw.

“I’m feeling really good and confident,” Gyau said of finally making his Bundesliga debut. “I feel like I am improving. Everything is pretty positive right now. When they called my number, I was anxious. I was really excited. It’s what I’ve been waiting for a long time. To get out onto the field in front of the home crowd, it was a great feeling.”

Gyau, now 21, is one of many U.S.-affiliated players associated with Hoffenheim. Fabian Johnson is still with the first team (but is leaving for Borussia Monchengladbach at season's end) while Danny Williams and Zach Pfeffer have spent time with the club. United States U-20 midfielder Russell Canouse is captain of Hoffenheim's U-19 team, and he felt a surge of pride watching Gyau's big moment.

“Of course I got a great feeling as well, sitting in the stands and watching a good friend of mine earn his Bundesliga debut,” Canouse said. “Joe has been constantly working hard and has had a great impact for the reserve team all season long. Both his speed and his ability to be creative before the goal are something special. One thing I have personally noticed has been his worth ethic against the ball as well, which has helped him transition into the first team.”

Gyau's ability to adapt to the local culture has helped too. He now speaks fluent German and enjoys living in the country. And even though Jurgen Klinsmann has said there was “no demand” for American players in top European leagues, Gyau has sensed a subtle shift in how Americans are perceived.

“They all know we’re athletic,” Gyau said. “Everybody in the world respects us athletically. As we come up, some of the things tactically aren’t up to par as they would be in the German system. But it’s only small things like that, things that you can learn. As Americans, we have the athletic ability, we have the technical ability. The soccer knowledge with Klinsmann’s system is coming."

"Everybody knows that over here.”

In November 2012, Gyau earned a call-up to the United States national team for a friendly against Russia but he did not play in the game. The American player pool is not exactly overloaded with speedy wingers who have Bundesliga experience, and if Gyau continues on his current trajectory he is well-positioned to get another look.

“I’ve always wanted to play with the national team,” Gyau said. “That callup in Russia was a little reminder from Klinsmann that, ‘Hey, we’re watching you.’ I am just trying to work my way back onto it. With this debut, anything can be possible. We will see how it goes.”

For Gyau, his sole focus is establishing himself at Hoffenheim. The challenge ahead will be whether or not he can continue to earn minutes and impress in the final two games of the season. Currently sitting in ninth place, Hoffenheim is safe from relegation but also has no chance to qualify for European play.

On Saturday, Hoffenheim will visit second place Borussia Dortmund in what could be another large stage for Gyau to impress.

“I think my future is looking bright as of now,” Gyau said. “Getting my first team debut is finally breaking the seal. Now I can call myself an actual Bundesliga player."

"I am just going to keep working.”

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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