Brad Guzan’s 200th appearance marks Atlanta United’s first clean sheet of the season 


Heading into the final moments of Atlanta United’s match against New England Revolution on March 9, it looked like the team’s 2024 home opener was going to have a storybook ending. With more than 67,000 people in attendance, Atlanta was well on its way to not only three points but a big win at home. The floodgates opened for the 5-Stripes in the second half, and Atlanta led their opponent 4-0 with less than 10 minutes remaining in regulation.

The clean sheet lasted most of the match – until the 83rd minute. That’s when Carles Gil found the back of the net to prevent the shutout for the home team. Atlanta United still finished the match with a win, a dominant 4-1 scoreline, and a standout performance from Giorgos Giakoumakis, which earned him MLS Player of the Matchday honors.

Still, Gonzalo Pineda wanted more from the result.

“I have to of course give credit to Carles Gil, but we need clean sheets,” Atlanta United’s head coach said after the New England match. “I really love clean sheets. It could have been a great reward for our backline and midfielders that did a great job. I think it was a complete game, but we should have rounded with the clean sheet.”

Fast forward one week and a similar scenario was playing out in the club’s following match. Again, Atlanta United was hosting an Eastern Conference opponent. Again, the home team was on its way to a shutout. Again, Giakoumakis showed out with a strike worthy of the highlight reel, an absolute banger for his fourth goal of the season, which dropped the visitors into a multi-goal deficit in the second half.

All that remained for Atlanta United was to see out the match. This time, the team did. In their third match of the regular season, Atlanta United won 2-0 over Orlando City SC to earn the club’s first shutout of 2024.

“I’m very happy,” Pineda said in his postmatch press conference. “I told that to the players that clean sheets are super important for us. We need to continue with that habit, especially on the road. That really, really will help us get points.”

Defense has been a major talking point for Atlanta United’s coaching staff, going back to preseason. In 2023, Atlanta United finished with the second-most goals scored in MLS (66), trailing only MLS Cup Champions Columbus Crew. However, the team also gave up a lot of goals and finished with the seventh-most goals allowed in MLS (53).

The team held that giving up so many goals took away some potential results that might’ve helped lift Atlanta United into a fourth-place spot or better in the Eastern Conference. So, the thought process heading into 2024 is if Atlanta United can keep up the scoring rate from last season, while conceding fewer goals, the team should be able to reach that target.

“With the attacking-minded players that we have, we should score very often in the games, but when we are able to obtain a clean sheet more often I think we’re going to get way more points, especially on the road,” Pineda said. “It’s about creating the habit of maintaining a clean sheet because the last time we got that I think it was last year, 13-14 games ago, so it’s too long, too many games without a clean sheet.”

Players, even attacking ones like Giakoumakis and Thiago Almada, have expressed in their media availabilities that defense is a key area where they individually, and as a group, want to improve. Pineda himself said that he is looking at his attacking players to set the tone defensively, using Giakoumakis, who currently shares the lead in the Golden Boot race and was named to the MLS Team of the Matchday for the second straight week, as an example.

"The way I rate GG is not only for his ability to score goals. We know he will do that even if he closes his eyes, that he will score goals this year," Pineda said. "But the defensive phase. How he's pressing, how he's chasing, how he's starting those defensive actions. And at times, he ran past some midfielders, wingers to do all that effort. That is massively important for me and the leadership that he shows there."

As Pineda pointed out, Sunday’s shutout was the first for Atlanta United since the team handed Nashville SC its worst loss in club history, a 4-0 rout on August 26, 2023. That match was also played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and featured a goal from Saba Lobjanidze, who scored the opening goal against Orlando, his first of the 2024 season.

Breaking that drought was the result of a lot of hard work and training to finesse the team’s defensive approach. That included some big stops from the team’s starting goalkeeper, Brad Guzan who on Sunday became the first player to make 200 appearances for the club in all competitions.

Guzan’s first save of the night came in the sixth minute when he stopped a sure strike from Luis Muriel. The veteran goalkeeper, who made 27 starts and finished with seven clean sheets last season, followed it up with a stop in the 19th minute on a left-footed strike from Martin Ojeda, then another on a low-driven shot in the 42nd minute. Guzan finished the night with four saves.

“We talk about competing, we talk about willing to do some dirty running and put in real work. And the guys did that,” Guzan said. “Certainly, we were tired in the second half and we still had to get up and down. They [Orlando] obviously have talented players in terms of their wingers and their front attacking players. Duncan McGuire is relentless in terms of his work rate and what he brings to their team, so we had to be up for that challenge. From a competitive standpoint, I thought we were excellent. We were really good. But overall, we need to be better.”

Brad Guzan greets supporters following Sunday's win

Atlanta United’s backline, led by two new center backs acquired this offseason, veteran Derrick Williams and Norwegian international Stian Gregersen, limited Orlando City to three shots on goal. Additionally, they held Duncan McGuire, Orlando’s only goal scorer in MLS play, to just one shot. He finished the night with 0.05 expected goals.

Although it was a record night for Guzan, in terms of both personal and team achievements, the veteran goalkeeper did not seem satisfied in the locker room speaking to reporters after the match. Like his head coach the week before, upset to give up a goal in a 4-1 victory, Guzan also expressed a desire for even better quality from his team.

“We probably got a little bit lucky,” the goalkeeper said. “There’s plays where I could probably go back and watch a game where I wasn’t too happy with what was going on in the front. And that’s not because of a lack of effort, but it’s a lack of switching off in those moments and mentally not being switched on and focused to the levels that we need to be in those areas of the field. With a combination of them probably not being as sharp as they would have liked and us being a little bit lucky, we were able to get a clean sheet.”

“I don’t think Orlando was at their best,” Guzan continued. “We need to be honest with ourselves. We can be better for sure.”

The clean sheet Sunday was the eighth ever against Orlando for Guzan, the most against any MLS opponent since he joined Atlanta in 2017. The rivalry between these two Eastern Conference clubs has been fierce throughout their histories. No one knows that better than the veteran goalkeeper playing his eighth season with Atlanta United:

“We know these games are going to be chippy. We know these games, they carry a lot of emotion. We know these games are intense, but that’s what you want,” Guzan said. “Those are games you want to be a part of. I think there’s a respect level, but at the same time we know coming into this stadium with our fans and our supporters behind us, we fancy our chances against anyone.”

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