Standing between Atlanta United’s goal and  the rest of the MLS is the formidable Brad Guzan. ()
Photo: Phill Flanders/Special for AJC
Photo: Phill Flanders/Special for AJC

Guzan’s goal: Set tone for Atlanta United’s second season

Soccer’s goal mouth is, as it has been for the past century and a half or so, 24 feet wide by 8 feet high. Such an expanse, intruded upon from all angles, is not to be manned by the small, the timid or the unassuming.

Atlanta United’s Brad Guzan is the kind of figure you’d want either at the door of a rowdy country bar or at the doorstep of your own goal. He’s 6-foot-4 but plays larger. The strict Eastern European features, borrowed from his Polish roots, gives him the look of the customs agent who just might eat your passport. And the shaved, shiny dome adds just that last little bit of you-shall-not-pass to the equation.

The more clever among the fans stuffing the seats during Atlanta United’s inaugural 2017 season noted the similarity between Guzan and a certain striking animated spokesman for cleanliness. They would post a large likeness of this doppelganger – Mr. Clean – and then re-purpose the name, giving it a soccer spin. Thus, Guzan became Mr. Clean Sheet, trading on the term for the goalkeeper who records a shutout.  

“I’ve had a lot of names tossed my way,” Guzan said. “Luckily for me that was a positive one. I hope it (sticks). If we’re able to keep clean sheets, that gives us the ability to hopefully win more games.”

Teammates suggested another image. That of Gru, the hairless, cloaked villain of the “Despicable Me” movies. They posted pictures of the unflattering character in his locker, just to needle him. That image, he would just as soon not gain traction. 

Anyway, you get the idea. The guy’s distinctive.

Now, imagine the toddler, just discovering the joys of kicking at a ball and trying to steer it into a small toy net in the backyard. And there, in the way, is one of the premier American-made goalkeepers in the world.  

Does Aiden Guzan, almost 3, get a free pass? Of course not. 

“I can’t let him score every time. I let him score every now and then,” his father said through a smile.

It was Guzan’s denial of adults that was most notable, after arriving from England in July and anchoring goal for the upstart expansion team for 14 games. His debut? A clean sheet against Orlando City, one of eight in his shortened season.

In that small sample size, Guzan established himself as a most important piece of a team that not only played a pressing offensive style, but also could batten down the hatch on the other end (second in the MLS in goals scored, it also was fourth in fewest goals allowed).

Other numbers also announced Guzan’s presence with authority: While stringing together five consecutive shutouts he constructed the sixth-longest shutout streak in MLS history (541 minutes). His goals against average – 0.71 – was the third best in league history among goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played.

“His impact was really good because he’s a great player,” defenseman Leandro Gonzalez Pirez said.

“The main thing is he’s a winner.”

Just as Guzan allowed zero goals in his first game with Atlanta United, he also stonewalled Columbus throughout regulation of the franchise’s first and as yet only playoff game. As did the Crew’s goalkeeper. The 0-0 game meandered into penalty kicks. And Guzan’s final play of an otherwise upbeat season was diving to his right while Columbus’ Adam Jahn deposited the penalty kick in the net to Guzan’s left. All that was remained afterward was to wish the playoff-record crowd of 67,000 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium a good-night-and-drive-home-safely.

The attitude that Atlanta United is carrying into Year 2 began taking form practically as soon as players turned heel and started heading back to the locker room that night. Put it this way, nobody was singing Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” as they shambled off to the offseason.   

“We were, quite frankly, pissed. We were upset. We were extremely upset,” Guzan said. “Everyone on the outside talked about how it was a successful year and on some levels it was, of course. But we as a team, as players, knew how good we were and we fell short. To have it end that way leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. It makes this year that much more important.”

He’s on a roll now: “It fuels us to make sure we have a good start to this year and make sure that we remember what that was like. Regardless of how good you think you are, how high your potential is, if you don’t perform on the day, it doesn’t matter.”

Guzan will pooh-pooh the notion that returning to America and establishing a cornerstone role with an uber-ambitious expansion team was a nice reboot for his career. Yet, there is little doubt that this latest move has suited him well. 

This has been thus far a most memorable stop on his soccer jouney.

Growing up outside Chicago, Guzan began as the tag-along kid while his two older brothers played some of that suburban kickball. “I was dragged around to different games and practices. I just liked being outside, running around, kicking the ball and I fell in love with the sport.”

“And when I started playing, I enjoyed (playing goal). I enjoyed diving around, getting muddy and being the person that would take away all the glory from a wannabe goal-scorer.”

His other game was baseball, but looking back, he figures that all playing the outfield ultimately accomplished was to hone his hand-eye for soccer. The high school football coach made one run at him to place-kick, but those pleas went unheard.

He chose his sport and position wisely. In 2005, Guzan, a South Carolina Gamecock, was the second overall pick of Chivas USA, then itself a MLS expansion outfit. Two years later, he was the league’s goaltender of the year, which propelled him to a transfer to the English Premier League and Aston Villa. Eight seasons there and another with Middlesbrough exposed Guzan to some radicalized soccer. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a father and his 10-or-so-year-old son drop trou and press full moons against the clear barrier separating the customers from the team bench. Let’s just say that Guzan has lived and leave it at that.

He also has ridden the storms of two English teams that were relegated (demoted to a lesser league for poor performance) and the hyper-critical media and fan base that followed them. 

So, yeah, why wouldn’t coming back to this side of the pond seem like a good idea? Where’s the down-side to a fresh start, especially with two young children now who might enjoy being on the same continent as their extended family?

Guzan acknowledges that he, like a lot of players grazing soccer’s higher slopes, didn’t know exactly what to expect of his return to the MLS. He had worked all his professional life to get overseas, only to come back to the league where it began.

“To come back to Major League Soccer, you don’t know exactly how high the bar has been raised,” he said. “To walk through these doors into this training ground (in Marietta), see Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the fan support, the support from (owner Arthur Blank) in terms of what he’s done for the city and the club – it’s unreal.

“Those moments are the ones you say, ‘Yep, I made the right decision.’”

And, yep, it seems Atlanta United made the proper decision, as well. Upon arriving, Guzan was quick to demonstrate the importance of a position in which the least amount of running is involved. The “SportsCenter” highlights all go to the goals scored. To the big guy in the net goes the responsibility of directing a game like the conductor does a symphony. 

“For me, whether it be leadership, communication, whatever you want to call it, I think it has to be a huge component,” Guzan said. “The goalkeeper is the only one on the field where everything is in front of him. If the play’s behind me, (the ball’s) normally in the back of the net. That’s not good.

“You see everything. You see the attackers making runs. You see defenders that are maybe a few steps out of position that you need to pull back into position. Your ability to speak and communicate to those guys, that’s huge.

“At the same time, you can dictate the pace of the game. Sometimes the ball goes out for a goal kick, and you decide whether you speed up the play, slow down the play. If we’re under pressure a bit, if you’re able to take a cross and catch it as opposed to punching it, little things like that make a difference.”

So, to be clear, Guzan is not just big, he’s loud, too.

How comforting.

“It always makes it a little easier on you when you have a good goalkeeper back there,” said one of Atlanta United’s newly acquired players, midfielder Darlington Nagbe. “Puts you at ease a little bit, lets you know if you mess up, he’s back there to take care of it.” 

Leave it to Mr. Clean Sheet to take care of the mess.