Josh Gros: Reflection and Anticipation

Josh Gros’ game-day attire isn’t what it used to be.Two seasons removed from his too-early retirement, the former all-star D.C. United midfielder has traded in the black-and-red jersey he once so proudly wore for the storied MLS club. As he walks through Gate A at RFK Stadium earlier this summer to watch United play the New York Red Bulls, the bespectacled Gros is sporting dress shoes, black slacks and a blue pull-over.It is garb less fitting for a one-time U.S. National Team player and more so for a civil engineer. Which makes sense, after all, seeing as Gros chose that profession once multiple head traumas forced him to hang up his boots in 2007.Nowadays, the United crest and the four stars above it representing each of the team’s MLS Cup titles – one of which Gros contributed to – are nowhere to be found on the 26-year-old’s wardrobe.“I miss it quite a bit,” Gros said of wearing the United kit. “It was one of the things I cherished most. Obviously, things didn’t work out the way I would like, but I am grateful for the four years I got to play and put on that uniform.”A week after the New York game, the Philadelphia Union introduced Gros as the franchise’s first team coordinator. Following 19 months of putting his Rutgers engineering degree to use at VIKA Inc., Gros will take his soccer knowledge to the Union front office and return to MLS next season.“Anything involved in soccer, I’m all for,” he said. “I’m excited about the opportunity to start a whole new team from the ground up. It’s something I’m looking forward to and something I know I’m going to enjoy.”As much as Gros does miss actually playing the beautiful game, there are also notable parts of his old match-day ensemble he doesn’t yearn for: his wrist cast and protective headgear.Gros broke his right wrist three times during his career, and time off the field (along with two surgeries) has finally given the joint a much-needed opportunity to fully heal. Although it served as a suitable symbol for his tireless work ethic and fortitude, he acknowledges it was never the most comfortable accessory.As for the headgear, Gros is simply appreciative of enjoying less hazardous professions. In fact, just a single positive aspect came to mind when he listed the pros and cons of working as an engineer.“At least nothing was going to hit me in the head while I was working,” Gros laughed.Wearing the Black-and-Red, White and Blue November 14, 2004. Carson, Calif. The Home Depot Center.Confetti sprayed through the air as United captain Ryan Nelsen joyfully lifted the MLS Cup trophy above his head. Having just concluded his first MLS campaign by playing 31 minutes in D.C.’s MLS Cup victory over the Kansas City Wizards, Gros took some time to reflect on what almost was.“If I went back a year from that moment, I was 100 percent sure I was going to be in the military, probably over in Iraq somewhere,” Gros said. “I went from that to being able to fulfill my dream of playing soccer.”Striker Alecko Eskandarian’s brace may have paced United to the 3-2 triumph, but Gros played a crucial role in helping D.C. preserve the win while down a man for most of the second half. Looking back on a highly successful four-year career, Gros still refers to that MLS Cup victory as “by far” his proudest moment.“I wasn’t even expecting to be playing at all,” he said. “To be part of the team to win the championship – it was kind of a whirlwind.”An unheralded fourth-round pick out of Rutgers in 2004, Gros devised plans to join the Marines had he not made United’s roster out of training camp. His MLS debut was vastly overshadowed by another rookie – then 14-year-old phenom Freddy Adu – taking the field for the first time. Even when Gros dished out his first assist on a Ronald Cerritos goal against the Los Angeles Galaxy a week later, his intentions weren’t so humble.Noting his ball to Cerritos was actually a mishit shot, Gros simply responds, “Everybody was making fun of me for it, but it is what it is.”“Josh had to deal with a lot of our abuse when it came to stuff like that,” recalled Eskandarian, who now plies his trade for the Galaxy. “I have some home videos that I took on a road trip from his rookie year, and you can see in his first year he was the quiet kid who sat in the front and didn’t say a word.”Despite his modest beginnings, Gros made an immediate impact for United, logging 2,087 minutes (good for sixth on the club) and winning the MLS Cup as a rookie. He then quickly dismissed the notion of a sophomore slump by notching the first goal scored by any player in the 2005 MLS campaign.It wasn’t long before Gros became a staple in the United lineup, his visible hustle and determination earning him recognition and respect from both inside and outside the RFK Stadium locker room.“He was going to run his opponent into the ground with his fitness, which no one could compete with. He was on a pedestal of his own,” United defender Bryan Namoff said. “He’s one who always wore his heart on his sleeve, and you always knew you were going to get 110 percent out of him.”“Within a year or two, he grew so much as a person and became a team favorite,” Eskandarian added. “I definitely cherish the friendship I have with him because we are able to joke with each other like brothers.”Nearly as prominent as Gros’ gritty endurance and stoic defensive nature was his often underestimated skill on the ball. With a left foot as capable as his natural right and an opportunistic nose for the goal, he proved to be a handful for opponents from wherever he lined up on the field. Such characteristics led United midfielder Ben Olsen to call him “one of my all-time favorite teammates.”Gros would go on to play the full 90 minutes for the 2006 MLS All-Star squad that defeated Chelsea 1-0, help set up United’s lone strike in a 2007 draw with Real Madrid and serve as a regular starter for D.C.’s 2006 Supporters’ Shield-winning side.He also earned his first U.S. National Team cap during a February 2007 friendly against Mexico, coming on as a sub at right back in the U.S.’s 2-0 victory over El Tri at the sold-out University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona.“There was a play in the U.S. game where he had to slide because it could have been a goal, and he was able to stop one of the attackers,” said Namoff, who roomed with Gros during that national team camp. “I remember him continuously beating his chest after the play, so I think the emotions got the best of him.”Even with his increased profile, Gros – whose teammates, according to Namoff, referred to as “The Sarge” – didn’t forget the path to the military he very nearly took. In 2007, he encouraged the support of wounded troops by appearing in a public service announcement on behalf of the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes.That year, Gros was an integral part of United’s run to successfully defend its Supporters’ Shield title. As it turned out, however, he wouldn’t have a chance to help D.C. win a third straight.“Josh was always one of the hardest working guys out there,” said Houston Dynamo defender Bobby Boswell, Gros’ teammate with both United and the U.S. National Team. “He never spoke back to anyone or complained about the work that had to be done.“It was a shame that his career ended early.”The Tough Times April 4, 2007. Guadalajara, Mexico. Jalisco Stadium.New United head coach Tom Soehn turned to the reliable Gros as his left-sided midfielder for the second leg of D.C.’s Champions Cup semifinal series with Chivas Guadalajara. In the 29th minute, the ball struck the midfielder in the back of the head. He fell to the ground, dizzy. Gros had a concussion and had to leave the game.It was the beginning of the end for Gros’ soccer career, though he didn’t realize it at the time. He was back in the starting 11 just 10 days later for United’s MLS home-opener against Kansas City. Gros would go on play every minute of 17 consecutive league matches for the Black-and-Red.Then, in the early stages of an August tangle with the Columbus Crew, Gros complained of blurred vision and dizziness following a routine header. He left nine minutes into that contest and missed several weeks before rejoining the lineup in early September.It was a return trip to Guadalajara for a Copa Sudamericana fixture on Oct. 2 that actually saw Gros lace up his cleats for the last time. Concussion symptoms plagued him when he took another ball to the head, and Soehn removed him from the pitch in the 77th minute.As he left the match, Gros – who said he can’t even remember his concussions unless he watches them on tape – realized “it was my last game.”“It puts everything in perspective,” said Eskandarian, who himself missed half of the 2005 season due to a concussion. “Soccer has been our job and even our life. But once you deal with post-concussion syndrome, you realize that there is a life after soccer that you hope to be healthy enough to enjoy.”A Massachusetts neurologist suggested that Gros sit out the rest of the year, and he obliged. When the postseason wrapped up, Gros decided to take the upcoming 2008 campaign off and reevaluate his athletic future.“I think everybody kind of saw it coming,” he said. “It was harder for me to tell myself than to tell anybody else.”Eskandarian, though, was one person who did not anticipate Gros’ sudden departure. A member of Real Salt Lake at the time, he took the news especially hard when he got word of Gros’ decision.“Since I had gone through post-concussion syndrome before, we had a few conversations about what he was going through,” Eskandarian said. “I tried my best to help him recover. I thought he was on the right track and was completely speechless when I found out he was forced to retire.“[It] made me appreciate how lucky we are to play this game and how quickly it can be taken away from us.”Just weeks after playing his final match, Gros started his job at VIKA. During his tenure at the engineering firm, he worked on designing projects for the U.S. Navy and Air Force.Since stepping away from MLS, Gros has never seriously considered returning to the field. In reality, he said he understood his playing days were over in November 2007, the moment he introduced himself to the life of a 9-5 worker at VIKA.If thoughts of a potential comeback ever did crawl into his mind, the lingering effects of his injuries kept him from acting on those urges.“Only in the last couple months here have I started feeling somewhat normal again,” Gros explained. “It took a long time to recover. The way I felt and what happened if I went on a jog or something, I knew it wasn’t a good idea.”In Gros’ absence last season, United struggled to its worst finish in years, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2002. To the players who carried on without him, his void was a tough one to fill.“Josh brought the right mix of anger and energy out there,” Olsen said. “The lack of energy and fight we showed last year, he always had every game. That type of energy is contagious. He’s just a guy you need on your team.”Moving On Gros still makes it out to 2400 East Capitol St. from time to time to see his former teammates in action, like he did on that rainy June night for United’s 2-0 Atlantic Cup rivalry win over the Red Bulls. Accompanying Gros as he entered the stadium was his past coach and soon-to-be colleague, Peter Nowak.After drafting Gros in 2004 and coaching him for three MLS seasons, Nowak left his job as United boss to become Bob Bradley’s top assistant for the U.S. National Team. One of his primary duties with the American program was to lead the U-23 squad that represented the United States in the Beijing Olympics. When looking for an experienced soccer mind to be an assistant coach with the U-23s, Nowak dialed Gros’ number.“That was a good learning experience for me transitioning,” Gros said. “Going from being a player to the coaching world is a big step. He has a lot to offer and I tried to learn as much as I could from him.”In May 2008, Gros took Nowak’s side at the Toulon International Tournament in France. Even though his time with the U-23s was short, he still left an impression on the young Yanks team.“[He was] able to bond with the players and provide great advice,” said Houston Dynamo midfielder Corey Ashe, a member of that U-23 side. “He wasn’t that much older than us, so we were able to joke around with him. And, having played professionally, he was able to relate some of his experiences to us.”Gros has since continued using his free time to share wisdom with younger players, serving as an assistant coach for the PDL’s Northern Virginia Royals and briefly joining the United Youth Academy staff.“We like to have as many of the former players as possible around to continue the tradition and share the passion and pride that we have at D.C. United,” Director of Youth Development John Maessner said. “Josh was great with the kids and had an ability to share his knowledge with them using a very positive approach.”So when Nowak, recently hired as the first Union head coach, gave Gros another call “out of the blue” to offer him a position with the organization, the Pennsylvania native jumped at the opportunity to get back in MLS and live closer to his hometown of Mechanicsburg.“It didn’t take me but two seconds to decide to go,” Gros said. “Working as an engineer really wasn’t my thing. I just wanted to be around the game and do something I love.”Gros will take on responsibility for organizing all matters concerning Union players, both on and off the pitch. It is a role that Namoff, for one, believes Gros is more than capable of handling.“There won’t be too many errors as he takes over that job,” Namoff said with a wry smile. “I’m sure everything will be right on time and he will run that like a military operation. I’m looking forward to talking trash to him, not as a player, but as a player to a staff member.”Moving forward, Gros is doing his best to maintain a level head and keep the big picture in perspective. While he made it clear he would rather be playing than watching matches from a suite, Gros carries no regrets on the turns his life has taken since he called the game quits.“At some point, I would have had to give it up anyway, so it was time to move on and do something else with my life,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world that I couldn’t play soccer and I’m looking forward to the next challenge.”