Brad Guzan brings a sense of stability to Atlanta United’s defensive efforts

ATLANTA — It hasn’t always been easy for Brad Guzan.

Atlanta United’s newest goalkeeper receives his first nod in the Five Stripes’ matchup against Orlando City FC on Friday. Not too long ago, the Illinois native was blocking shots for the U.S. men’s national soccer team in the group stages of the Gold Cup. United technical director Carlos Bocanegra, along with the rest of the front office, knew they needed to get Guzan acclimated to the squad. After speaking with USMNT head coach Bruce Arena, Guzan was pulled from the Gold Cup roster for the knockout stages to allow for his long-awaited debut.

To acquire Guzan after his long, nine-year stint in England was a no brainer for Bocanegra. The once six-year U.S. captain, Bocanegra lined up in front of the experienced goalkeeper back during his time spent with the USMNT.

“I’ve been fortunate to be a teammate of his,” Guzan said in a press conference. “Starting those conversations and those relationships, it made my decision easy. When you have that leadership from the top, it makes it easier for players to come into the club and slide right in.”

Even Atlanta United president Darren Eales’ knowledge of the English Premier League catered to directing the 32-year-old back to the MLS. Guzan isn’t unfamiliar with the league. He’s witnessed firsthand what it’s like to be part of a startup franchise in Chivas USA, and it was there where Guzan was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year for the 2007 season.

A year later, Ashton Villa of the EPL signed the American keeper. Guzan endured the preseason only to be dropped from the first team in favor of then-U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel. Following a short loan to Hull City, a return to Aston Villa allowed him to show some promising seasons thereafter, and he landed in North Yorkshire by way of Middlesbrough F.C.

Former Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes became the No. 1 to Guzan’s No. 2. He found himself in a similar situation he once found in Villa. It was eventually the deciding factor that he’d transfer over to Atlanta. Despite having one year left on his contract though, Guzan said it didn’t matter the extent of his stay.

He wanted a new opportunity.

“Being over in England for nine years and watching the league grow,” Guzan said, “You’re seeing the growth of Atlanta United. This was something I wanted to be a part of, being a part of this project and leaving a footprint on the league.”

There’s a different feel around the training grounds with Guzan around. It’s even a unique feeling for the 6-foot-4 goalie, who underwent an ongoing battle to overcome regulation in the EPL with Middlesbrough. It was eventually regulated to the the English Football League Championship. But here in the MLS there is no regulation and with Atlanta United sitting fourth in the Eastern Conference, it shouldn’t have to worry. The playoffs are in sight and the acquisition of Guzan provides reassurance. Not just on the field, but off as well.

Eales capitalized on both Guzan’s ability on the pitch and his sheer ability to lead in the locker room. Furthermore, that it isn’t necessarily about the numbers on the stat sheet, rather the feeling among teammates and their willingness to follow.

“I think it’s quite uncanny,” Eales said. “Going abroad and coming back will help us.”

Nonetheless, on the field it’s no surprise that Guzan makes his vocal presence known largely to his backline in front of him. It’s been integrated into his DNA.

“As a goalkeeper, you try to have the guys organized in front of you as much as possible,” Guzan said. “They may just be focused on the ball and not the runner. You’ve done your job before you make a save.”

His teammates have showed their delight of welcoming Guzan. Defender Leandro González Pírez brought it full circle and iterated that Guzan is a talking machine and doesn’t stop talking. Whereas forward Yamil Asad said that if things go well for their new goalkeeper then things will go right for the team.

Atlanta United’s roster is filled with a number of younger players such as defender Anton Walkes, who has gained time on the right side of the pitch. Walkes is someone that can learn from Guzan. Since one previously played in the EPL and the other is on loan from a club from England’s top league.

“Regardless of who we have back there they’re going to help you out in different ways,” Walkes said. “But Brad has loads of experience and he’s only going to improve our season.”

Unfortunately, Guzan’s Atlanta United counterpart Alec Kann — who ranks seventh in MLS with 56 saves — suffered a quadricep injury that will keep him out 6-8 weeks, and while there’s no doubt Kann will be back, one can’t help but think it’ll be difficult once Guzan becomes settled in a bit more.

Guzan said he had the opportunity to converse with Kann. The understanding was established that only one of them could play, of course.

“I’ve been the No. 1 and No. 2,” Guzan said. “You push each other in training. He’s been great, you want your teammates to have a speedy recovery.”

Head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino chimed in expressing what could have been a difficult situation. But with Kann unavailable, Guzan possesses the upper hand.

“The biggest challenge is getting him how the team likes to play, getting him in with the first team,” Martino said of Guzan. “Now we are getting up to speed as much as possible for the rest of the season.”

Everyone wants to see good competition, but it’ll have to wait. Atlanta United needs Guzan to help lock in a spot in the playoffs, making his experience extremely valuable.