Josh Gatt isn't giving up on soccer, even if soccer seems to be giving up on him

ALTACH, Austria -- Joshua Gatt has already experienced enough to fill one life. We spoke over the course of seven months as he made his way around the world, charting his journey from an obscure ground on the border of Austria and Switzerland to Plymouth, Michigan.

Gatt, a former U.S. national team prospect and player, is still only 28 and has been searching for nearly nine months -- since his most recent pro contract wasn't renewed -- for a new club and a fresh start to his 13-year career. He is frustrated. He has a story to tell, and he is hungry.

"Name one other player who can play as well as I can after four knee surgeries? The soccer world thinks it's better than me? I firmly disagree," Gatt told ESPN. "[Soccer doesn't] seem to care, don't seem to want to give me a chance, don't see the potential I have left.

"The message is clearly sent from soccer to me saying it's moved on. Personally, I think it's crap. I have never had a season without at least a goal or assist in every level I have played at. I challenge any team to take me out, any club in the world, and I bet you I could play with them."

IT'S MAY 2019, AND GATT IS SAYING HIS GOODBYES to teammates at Austria Bundesliga team SC Rheindorf Altach. He's looking for a pair of wayward Adidas Predators while clutching three of his match shirts to save as mementos of his season with the team. He is on to the next challenge, he tells a few of the English-speaking players there. What challenge? He shrugs, used to the unknown.

Altach is the sort of place where everyone knows the lady selling strawberries by the side of the road. The folks in the bakery also work at the ground on matchdays. On Tuesdays, it is rotisserie chicken day at the local supermarket, with people lining up to buy from a man in a van.

The club is quaint, to say the least. The local post office doubles as the club shop. The VIP area is a temporary marquee, housed adjacent to the 8,500-capacity Stadion Schnabelholz, which was without a stand for much of the 2018-19 season, while it was rebuilt. The changing rooms are underneath another stand where old wooden cabins blend into the structure. The team's kit is held in a portacabin. SCR Altach avoided relegation, but Gatt missed their final match. His one-year contract ended, and he is keen to find a new club.

In his club-issued car, in the pouring rain, he recalled how his career has come full circle.

Aged 17, he had a scholarship offer from Indiana University when he was invited to play for a team called the Orange County Blue Stars, made up of promising players from around America. The Blue Stars were a travel team, in a sense, known for touring Europe and playing exhibition games in front of scouts from a number of top teams. Gatt played well and received two offers: one from German side 1. FC Mainz and another from SCR Altach. Having stalled for a year to finish high school, he signed for Altach, which he thought would provide more opportunities for first-team action.

He spent the first couple of months assimilating to Austrian soccer. Then, just six months and 21 matches later, Gatt scored in Altach's 4-0 demolition of Admira in late November 2010. In the stands was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, then manager of Molde. Gatt's agent got very excited, but the player was in the dark.

"I had to work out the name. I went into YouTube and typed in Ole, Gunnar and tried to type in Solskjaer, and I couldn't spell that," Gatt said. "Google finished it for me, so I copied and pasted it into YouTube, and the very first video that popped up was 'Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Manchester United all 142 goals.' I was looking at it shell-shocked, so I clicked on it and watched it, and as I watched it, I was like, 'Holy s---, this guy was at my game? And likes me?'"

A month later, Gatt was a Molde player. Gatt remembers how Solskjaer picked him and another American, Sean Cunningham, up from the airport; the two players quickly became pals. Gatt helped Molde to their first league title in their centenary year, and all was well. Even now, he remembers that as the highlight of his career. At the time, he was even touted to Sir Alex Ferguson by Solskjaer, who told the then-Manchester United manager to keep an eye on this young American prospect.

"[Solskjaer] probably had the biggest influence of any coach I've ever had," Gatt said. "He took the time to develop me as a tactical player. The reason I know the game now and understand it is because of him. He took the time to teach me and develop me. He taught me about how my teammates move or how to cause the defenders chaos.

"A lot of European guys get taught that [at] younger ages on the tactical side, but Americans, not so much. At least, I didn't."

In late 2012, Gatt's international career was taking off. He had made his debut under Jurgen Klinsmann and impressed at Under-20 level. He played against Russia in November 2012 and against Canada the following January. There was growing buzz around the young right-winger, who could play in most positions and was showing early signs of being a potential mainstay for the next decade. He was named in the U.S. squad for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, but in June of that year, he suffered the first of several ACL injuries.

"I had never been through anything major when I was younger," Gatt said. "The worst thing I did when I was young was tear some ligaments in an ankle or sprain a knee, but I never tore anything or had to have major surgery. I didn't know what I was getting myself into, so I was prepared to go through it. It was really hard. But I went through it, fought through it. What other choice did I have?

"Then in a training session, the knee went again. Molde recommended surgery but said nobody would blame you if you didn't want to play anymore. I didn't have a plan. What was I going to do? The only answer I had was, 'I am going to play soccer.' I took a while longer, instead of pushing it. I came back when everyone thought I was good and ready. I got into playing a game. Then five minutes into my next game, my knee pops again. That's when I was most devastated.

"Not many people talk about how I came back from the injuries or how well I look when I move -- and that's after three ACLs. A lot of players don't come back after one or two ACLs or lose that dynamism. I've had three knee surgeries, and I run just as fast as I did."

In January 2017, Gatt was released by Molde after five difficult seasons, and he and his wife, Melissa, returned to the States. He briefly found root at Minnesota United, but before he had a chance to play in MLS, he was traded to the Colorado Rapids. At the end of the 2017 season, they opted against extending his contract. Gatt's pro career was at risk of stalling, but in early 2018, that was the last thing on his mind when Melissa was diagnosed with cancer.

MELISSA WAS ORIGINALLY DIAGNOSED WITH A RARE CANCER, thymic carcinoma, that has a low recovery rate. But it was a misdiagnosis, and a second opinion confirmed that she had Hodgkin's lymphoma, a more treatable form. Gatt put soccer on hold to focus on helping his wife through her treatment.

"This was us fighting for her, and that's the most important thing in the world for me," he said. "Soccer was really important and everything, but it wasn't the be-all and end-all. It was so important, but it wasn't life and death. We were doing whatever it took."

Gatt's health insurance through Major League Soccer was terminated after Colorado declined the option to sign him earlier in 2018, having traded for Gatt, midfielder Mohammed Saeid and an international roster spot in exchange for Marc Burch and Sam Cronin. But before Melissa received her cancer diagnosis, her mother signed her up for her own insurance, which proved to be life-saving and saved the couple from serious debt.

They knew they would still need money to cover the vast medical costs, so on March 1, 2018, Gatt sent the following tweet: "I'm raising money for Fighting Cancer, Anything helps." He included a link to a GoFundMe page. The response was incredible. Among many others, Christian Pulisic and Solskjaer helped raise awareness and donated. The page raised $78,000.

"I was extremely shocked. I wasn't expecting anything like that. I really wasn't," Gatt said. "I set a pretty menial bar, and it kept growing, so I kept raising it, and we got to the point where we made a lot of money, and I felt like if I went any further, it would start to feel selfish, like I was trying to ask for too much.

"When it came to my wife ... I didn't want it to look like I was trying to fish for extra cash. I was trying to get as much of it as possible together so we could make sure we kept her safe. When I created it, my survival instinct kicked in. I knew that if we were going to do this, we will need help, and that's all it was.

"In that situation, there's never a point of being too proud to ask for help. When you need help, you have to ask. If you don't ask, it'll eat you up inside. I asked other people I knew, people I didn't know and said, if you can, I could really use some help. It was me asking the world to take a minute, and if they could help, I could really appreciate it."

Melissa finished her chemotherapy in July 2018 and is now in remission. Soon after that, Gatt re-signed for Altach, beginning his next chapter, but by May 2019, he and Melissa were packing up their belongings and sorting out shipping costs for their two dogs, Nunio and Rex, to come back to the United States.

UNLIKE MOST OF THESE STORIES ABOUT TRIUMPH OVER ADVERSITY, Gatt's journey remains stalled. He has had false promises and one further knee surgery since he left Austria in the summer of 2019, but he is fit and so eager to let years of frustration out on the pitch. Soccer is a cruel, unforgiving beast, but he is fully aware of his mortality, both the sporting and the literal. Tattooed across his chest is a motto: "It's in your moments of decision that you choose your destiny," a phrase Solskjaer's assistant at Molde, Richard Harris, once said to Gatt. On his left arm, he has a three-quarter sleeve.

"I have a big tree that goes up the length of my arm, a family tree, in a way, that represents my family, and in the branches, there's a raven that has my family's initials: my brother, mum and dad," Gatt said. "That's a family tree. There are a lot of angels that are holding or carrying off skeletons.

"A lot of the angels aren't beautiful angels. They're tattered, beaten up. They're worn. The reason I wanted to do it that way ... people die all the time. I lost my grandmother. It's difficult, and it's hard when the people you love leave you. It's hard on you. I always figured that if it's hard on us and hard on humans and hard to lose the people we love, it has to be hard on the people taking them.

"I wanted that idea that these angels, well, they're doing their job not because they want to but because they have to, and it wears on them just like losing a loved one wears on us."

In a heartbeat, the conversation switched to the transience of life.

"If you live in constant fear of worrying about your mortality, you won't spend the time you have living," Gatt said.

"I've learned that when I used to live vicariously through my past, especially with the knees, I just kind of came to the realisation that if you're living your life in hindsight or what you should have done or how you should have done it, then you're never going to be able to move forward. The now is passing you right by, and you're not doing anything about it."

Gatt lives in the present with an introspective view, rather than worrying about outside perspectives. He knows he's no longer the young, promising, American player. He is now an international with four major knee surgeries to his name, but that doesn't concern him. Having been written off so many times, he thrives on proving his doubters wrong. He just needs an opportunity.

"I feel I have maybe eight or nine years left [as a pro] because of the fact I did suffer a lot of injuries, but I didn't play a lot of soccer in that time, so I didn't suffer a lot of wear and tear of [so many games] season after season," he said.

"Major League Soccer is expanding. That's the most interesting thing, and they're adding more and more teams every year. There's going to be more and more need for players, and hopefully I can find my way home at some time. If it's not right now, then it's not right now."

Gatt is still living in Michigan, supported by Melissa, Rex and Nunio -- Nunio recently finished his cancer treatment, and the signs are positive -- but he's restless. He is adamant that his soccer story is not yet finished.

"No one gives me the credit I deserve," Gatt said. "I am a fighter, a survivor, and I push myself to play harder than most people I know. My level raises to my challenge. I dare someone to challenge me.

"After everything I've been through? C'mon. I have nothing to lose."