If there’s one quality that’s clear about Atlanta United player Brad Guzan it’s that he’s always going. On the field, off the field. As a goalkeeper, as a captain, as a teammate, as a father – there’s no off button. He moves fast, talks faster. Guzan has a constant motor, which is impressive for a 38-year-old professional athlete whose career has reached its later stages.
“He's got no middle speed really, it's kind of zero to 100,” Atlanta United goalkeeper coach Liam Curran says. “And so I think that makes him unique in the sense that he's just a top professional in that regard. Obviously, he's a big personality. He's a vocal leader. He has a presence to him that is easy to see.”
But a motor like that can be challenged when other parts of the car are faulty. Not for the rest of us, the viewers of all that energy and all that intensity (although maybe it can be at times). The real hardship exists for the subject himself. What happens when someone who doesn’t have an off button is impeded, hindered, forced to sit on the sideline? What happens when a small yet key mechanism that powers the body has to shut down? What labor is involved to get the whole car moving again?
The result requires a different outlet for the engine to power, to redirect the surge somewhere else entirely. That kind of shift means a concentrated, coherent plan. It requires a support system, consisting of informed experts who know how to instruct and guide, to put the motor to good use, even as the system rebuilds.
For Guzan, Atlanta United’s great, big, bald wall, there’s an additional aspect required, something he’s had to rediscover as he works his way back from a tough injury to his Achilles. He possesses the determination, the grit, the attitude, the mentality. But there’s another virtue that will test him, that he'll have to take on and put into practice – a virtue that will be essential to his success.
Guzan’s first home match after his season-ending injury is May 7, roughly three weeks from the moment he ruptured his Achilles tendon in front of a home crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It’s the first match at home for the team since then, too. In the three weeks in between, Atlanta United goes through a string of up-and-down results. They beat Chattanooga FC 6-0 in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup before falling short to Eastern Conference opponents back-to-back.
Guzan rolls up dressed as he normally would for match day, wearing the traditional suit and tie that all the players and football staff wear during their arrival to the stadium. Only this time, Guzan has an accomplice: a scooter, which supports his right leg. Post-surgery, he puts no weight on this leg, relying on the scooter to push him forward.
But for this match Guzan doesn’t go through the motions of preparing to play. The feeling, he describes, is surreal.
“My first match back, being back in the stadium, it had a lot of similar vibes and feelings to a match day. But then obviously, there came a point when I wasn't getting changed from a suit into matchday clothes and the uniform, and I wasn't heading out to the field. Instead, I was headed up to a suite to watch the game. Obviously, that part was different.”
He watches the match not from the bench, but from a seat higher up in a designated suite for players and staff. This is where he cheers on his squad as Atlanta United beats Chicago Fire 4-1 behind a hat trick from striker Ronaldo Cisneros. It's also the place where Guzan watches as teammate Miles Robinson himself goes down with a season-ending injury.
Guzan absorbs it all, from his seat, far from the pitch, within yelling range but a fair distance away from his teammates. It’s essentially as still – and sedentary – as the rehab process will require him.
“It didn't, didn't… I don't know. It wasn't like a feeling of ‘Oh wow.’ It was a feeling of probably mixed emotions, of excited to be back in the stadium, excited to be back around the group, a little bit angry, and in terms of not being able to be on the field, frustration,” he says. “But again, those are just all parts of a long-term injury and the rehab process of being able to channel that emotion in the right way and put it to good use.”
But Guzan doesn’t stay still for too long.
Very soon after that home match, Guzan’s rehab process begins. He works with Sean Cropper, the assistant athletic trainer at Atlanta United. Cropper’s responsibilities at the club mostly involve rehabbing injured players. Whenever an Atlanta United player gets injured, Cropper is the one who develops the process to get that player back onto the pitch.
Cropper joined the club in 2019 on the brink of Atlanta United’s run to the Eastern Conference Final. As someone who’s never suffered a long-term injury before, 2022 marks the first time Guzan and Cropper have worked together so extensively. Previous interactions between the two were limited to a short-term basis. In fact, Cropper recalls knowing Guzan from mostly brief pop-ups to the medical room for a bit of banter or treatment for nagging soreness.
“I would describe it as a fun challenge,” Cropper says. “He’s had a, I think, 18-year career and he's never sustained really any injury at all, especially something as severe as this, so the rehab process is not familiar for him.”
Given Guzan’s unfamiliarity with long-term rehab, it was important for Cropper, starting off, to educate the goalkeeper on what to expect. The first month involves establishing a good foundation, ensuring no complications with his incision post-surgery. Gradually, Guzan will work his way to walking, then running, each stage getting Guzan to put more weight on his injured foot. The plan is to rebuild his strength as they go and make sure Guzan feels like an athlete, even though he isn’t on the field.
Another key part of the framework is how he’ll measure Guzan’s progress. It isn’t a week-to-week checklist like he’ll be here at Week 6 and there by Week 12. Instead, the process is one step at a time. In order to move on to the next, Guzan must meet certain criteria first.
“The thing about rehab is everyone's different. Sometimes the injuries are the same, but everyone responds to the process a little bit differently.” Cropper says. “So we need to take in the contextual factors, ensure that it's not a cookie-cutter approach and that you're really individualizing the rehab process. Some of them go smoothly and some of them you need to think a little bit more about the way you want to progress.”
Gym workouts for Guzan start on May 28. For the first month, he doesn’t put a lot of weight on his foot at all. Cropper and his team don’t want to risk any infection or issues with the long, gnarly incision on Guzan’s right heel. The low-level rehab focuses on creating a solid base, things like basic ankle exercises to restore strength in his leg.
The second month, Guzan begins to walk a little bit more. He puts more weight on his leg. Cropper uses blood flow restriction to strengthen Guzan’s lower body. Guzan starts doing some aerobic conditioning on the exercise bike and continues to keep his upper body fit. He really works one area of his body: the calf muscle.
“You ask Brad about a calf raise, he'd probably just shake his head because he's done thousands of calf raises,” Cropper says.
Later in the summer on July 6, Guzan starts running. He starts to feel more athletic, as Cropper explains:
“We really wanted to look at movement competency. First, ensuring that he could move first like a normal human, that he was able to restore his gait – first his walking, his ability to walk forwards, backwards, sidestepping and stuff like that. All the while we're continuing to work on the calf strength, continuing to add in some lower body movement in just getting him to a point where he's starting to feel a little bit more athletic.”
And as Guzan works through this process for the first time in his professional career, so does Cropper. For Cropper, too, this is something new. Prior to Guzan’s injury, he’d only ever seen one Achilles tear in person in his experience, and that was with a high school athlete. Very quickly, Cropper becomes an expert on the tendon. He knows how valuable the muscle is, how it transfers force into the ground, but also absorbs force from the ground back up into the rest of the body. He learns how sometimes the tendon is required to be stiff, other times elastic. The calm, confident athletic trainer becomes a vital part of Guzan’s rehabilitation and a constant presence in the goalkeeper’s day-to-day life.
“It's every morning: Come in, check in with him. He checks in on the Achilles,” Guzan says of Cropper. “Then from there we discuss what the plan is, whether it be the week ahead or the day ahead. And we get on with our work, whether that's outside or in the gym. He's kind of the guy that's there with us throughout that process.”
After Guzan’s surgery, Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda makes it a point to reach out to his captain. He respects Guzan’s longstanding tenure with the club since the goalkeeper joined in 2017. Pineda’s message to Guzan is that he wants his goalkeeper to be involved with the team as much as possible.
“His leadership and the culture that he has in his mind and in his heart is very good for what we want to achieve here, what we want to create,” Pineda says at his end-of-year press conference. “So, I think Brad is a very valuable player on the field but as much as he is off the field as well for us.”
As much as the head coach and the team need their captain, the captain also needs him team. It can be challenging for a player going through a long-term recovery to still feel like they have a part to play. So, it was beneficial for Guzan to stay involved in team functions too.
“I mean, those are probably some of the challenging parts of the rehab process. You're desperately wanting to be on the field, inside the white lines, but obviously because of the injury you can’t be,” Guzan says. “So, trying to stay connected, whether that's talking to guys in the locker room about plays that happened in training or happened in the game, trying to keep the spirits up throughout the game schedule, and talking to guys and continuing to encourage guys and push them forward.”
So, Guzan remains a fixture, attending video sessions, talking to his teammates on a daily basis, taking part in the team’s tradition to celebrate birthdays after training. When teammates Dom Dwyer and Andrew Gutman joke about Guzan's weight on the treadmill, the unrelenting goalkeeper doesn’t even wait to catch his breath to banter right back. Later in the summer, Guzan is cleared to travel. He joins Ozzie Alonso, the Atlanta United midfielder who also suffered a season-ending injury, on the team’s road trip to Chicago in July.
During that trip, Guzan’s on the plane, in the meal room, around the guys, helping them with whatever they needed. He says having those experiences helps his perspective. It becomes a little easier to connect with teammates because talking from the outside isn’t the same as being on the field and in the trenches. There are bittersweet moments, being present but not able to play, as the team ends the road trip with a scoreless draw to Chicago Fire.
“It's difficult for me not being out there and not being able to help them especially in such a tough moment. It's difficult to then make sure I'm staying focused on what I have to do to make sure that I can get back out there,” Guzan says. “So those are just part of the bumps in the road, if you will of rehab process, especially being a senior player.”
There are moments, too, when Guzan still plays the role of captain. Little moments behind the scenes – in the locker room, watching training from the golf cart, one-on-one conversations around the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground. Before one match, Guzan gives a speech to the team before they take the pitch. Atlanta United is hosting Toronto FC on September 10. The team has come off back-to-back road losses and return home needing a win to keep any hope alive for making the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. So, prior to kickoff, Guzan takes a moment to say a few words and give the team a boost, as Curran recalls:
“I think Brad felt it was an opportunity for him to try to inspire the group a little bit and give them some reminders on some of the things that are important, tactics aside… the responsibility that we all have to represent the fans in the right way. We're at home that day, and we’ve got the best fans in the league, so we wanted to give them something to be excited about and inspire them. Obviously, we've got a responsibility to wear the jersey the right way, and represent the club, the community and the city in the right way.”
Guzan’s exact words that day remain in the locker room. But if his message was to challenge his teammates, to play with pride and a purpose, then they met the call. Atlanta United defeats Toronto FC 4-2 five years to the day that the club played their first home match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
As he makes his way back, slowly and surely, Guzan plugs his motor into other areas of the game. As a true club captain, he doesn’t disappear or sulk or throw himself a pity party. He stays involved – and does so as his bright, positive self. Just as Guzan makes himself available to his teammates, he also makes himself available to other facets of the club.
He’s the first player to interact with the Owen Klemme Conquer Kids during their Training Ground experience on August 24. Guzan, along with Robinson, join the children and their families on the sideline as they watch the first team train at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground.
For the inaugural American Family Insurance Cup in June, Guzan plays a unique role. He provides commentary and analysis for the Bally Sports broadcast, joining the coverage alongside play-by-play announcer Kevin Egan and sideline reporter Jillian Sakovits.
It’s Guzan’s first experience broadcasting. Calling the game from the broadcast booth allows him to see soccer from a different vantage point. Although he was on-air for the friendly, that doesn't keep Guzan from cheering or smiling when his teammate Josef Martínez scores the opening goal.
“Brad was an absolute natural in the booth, and that didn't surprise me for a second,” Egan says. “The big man has an infectious enthusiasm for the game, but also for his teammates. He was kicking every ball up there and kicking me a few times while he was at it. His suit and tie game could use a little work, but his passion and analysis were top notch.”
Egan says that Guzan absolutely has the talent to transition into broadcasting once his playing career is over, adding that the goalkeeper’s zest, love for the sport and much-needed sense of humor are all evident on the call. Guzan says it was a great experience, but he has no immediate plans to go into broadcasting full-time. His priority is getting back to the pitch to play. Although, being in the booth as an analyst and commentator is potentially something he’d consider in the future – just not any time soon.
“That’s far, far, far down the road,” Guzan says.
Later in the summer, Guzan makes a move he’s been waiting for. After spending over two months working out exclusively in the gym, on July 27 the goalkeeper begins goalkeeping sessions. He’s been itching to get back out onto the pitch – and now, the moment finally arrives.
“I was pushing the envelope in terms of wanting to be just back on the grass,” he says. “I was tired of being in the gym and I wanted to be back on the grass.”
This part of the process brings Curran more into the mix. Cropper stays too, but his work becomes more supplemental. Curran takes the reins to develop training sessions, but the staff members construct the plan together. It’s important for them to collaborate, along with fitness coach Jack Kimber, to make sure the sides are on the same page and that Guzan is getting what he needs out of each session.
“It's difficult because Brad is someone when he's on-field, especially when he's working with Liam in a goalkeeper session, he's going to give his 100%. He’s not necessarily going to think about his injury at all. So, we wanted to make sure we came up with an environment to where he didn't have to worry about whether a movement was going to bother him or would put them at risk,” Cropper says.
With that in mind, the goalkeeper sessions don’t start as quickly as one might think. Guzan doesn’t go straight to diving, punting, crossing, kicking, blocking. In fact, Cropper and Curran plan goalkeeping drills that keep Guzan off his feet. He practices these same skills but from the ground, working on handling and reactions. For the staff, it’s important to not jump ahead too quickly and undo the progress Guzan has made.
“There came a point where we were outside and I was training, doing a bunch of stuff seated and on my knees, but I was outside. I was on the grass,” Guzan says.
This goalkeeping work continues well into the fall, and on September 27 Guzan progresses to the next stage: diving. Finally, Guzan is doing everything a goalkeeper does. The sounds return to him. The shuffle of cleats on grass, the ball hitting his gloves, the pop from a well-hit strike. Those moments bring joy to Guzan, Cropper and Curran – to see the man with the most appearances in club history back playing again.
“I mean it put a smile on everyone's face,” Curran recalls. “You know, he's balling out. Loud as ever. He's got his gloves on, he's got his boots on. It probably makes him feel a little bit like himself again because that's obviously what his day-to-day has been now for 20 odd years. And so, I think it put a smile on everyone's face. And it was great to kind of get through that first phase of the rehab program and get him back out on the pitch doing what he loves.”
As he moves from one phase to the next in his rehabilitation, there’s one thing that’s always running. From the gym to the field, and the calf-raises in between, it’s hard to find a moment when Guzan is quiet.
He’s naturally a loud talker. He bops around the Training Ground, speaking with the office staff. He knows most, if not all, of them by name. He’s like the mayor of Atlanta United, a person gregarious and amenable, the big, bald man who always wears a smile.
“Brad's funny because he's probably the hardest worker we have and also the guy that banters the most. He's always joking around, always bantering, with anyone, players, staff, coaches, people up in the kitchen. He's everyone's best friend,” Cropper says.
“But the thing about Brad is when it's time to work, he flips a switch and it's the most intense work you've ever seen – and he's able to flip that switch in an instant,” Cropper continues. “And you can kind of tell that's how he's become the player that he is and how he's been able to sustain a career like the one he’s had.”
There are some frustrating moments in his training, moments that might provoke Guzan to let out a word not safe for work. As a guy who’s played professional soccer for 18 years, including nine years in the English Premier League, Guzan is used to performing at a very high level. And as he makes his way back, his performance isn’t always as high as he wants or expects it to be. That’s when Guzan reminds himself to be patient, that it takes time for the body to recover and get back into the swing of things.
“Now that I've got a new Achilles essentially, I've got to find that comfort level with it,” Guzan says. “And with that comes time and a little bit of patience which, if you ask others, maybe I don't have the most of. So, I need to be able to manage those expectations.”
On the pitch when he talks, it’s not just banter or instructions – Guzan also asks for feedback. Getting used to a new Achilles means sometimes things may feel off or foreign as he looks to find his rhythm as he gets used to certain movements after not doing them for five or six months.
This magnifies that nagging concern about his performance. He wants to stay at a high level. So, as he’s diving, as he’s kicking, as he’s practicing finding teammates, he asks for constant feedback. Cropper and Curran are there to answer the many, many times Guzan asks ‘How did it look?’ Because he's getting used to something new, even though it may feel different to him it may in fact look perfectly normal to the outside viewer.
“He's a perfectionist I would say,” Cropper says. “And in this rehab process, he's a little bit foreign to it, but it was important for him to know that ‘Hey, that may not feel 100% just yet. You're safe doing it, but let's just continue with these reps. Think about it. And we'll eventually get there.’”
“I think I joked the first time I was jumping I wasn't sure if you can get a piece of paper under my foot,” Guzan says. “But just that ability to take off and land on a single leg and absorb all that force on my new Achilles, that was certainly encouraging."
As we turn the page on 2022 and look ahead to 2023, the return of Brad Guzan to Atlanta United grows closer. It’s an exciting prospect for the team and supporters that they’ll soon see their teammate and their leader suit up again in goalkeeper gear.
There are so many things to look forward to with Guzan’s return: rejoining his teammates at training for the first time, running through the tunnel the guys form to welcome him back, putting on the captain’s armband again, playing on the pitch instead of watching from a suite, returning to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and changing clothes to get dressed for match day, hearing the Guzan chant from the 17s in the stands, making that first dive, first block, first save and everything feels normal, as it should.
With Atlanta United's preseason a month away, that’s all starting to feel more like a reality. Although there’s no definitive date set for his return, it’ll undoubtedly be a happy occasion when Guzan experiences those moments again. It’ll also mean a lot for the people who helped him along the way.
“I feel great about where Brad's at. I feel great about Brad and 2023,” Cropper says. “I'm just excited to see him get back in with the lads and see him contribute to our team next year.”
“Personally, I just want to see him back in with team having fun, doing what he loves,” Cropper continues. “Obviously, seeing him play in a game it's going to be a big moment for all of us because there's a lot of people around here that have played a part in Brad's recovery. That's going to be a big moment for all of us. You know, I'm excited to give him a nice big hug once he plays his first game.”
“I think he's going to bring a level of confidence back into the group when he does come back out there. It’ll mean a lot,” Curran says.
“That’ll be a real cool moment, but just like anything it won't shift the focus on to him,” Curran adds. “He’ll be thinking about how he can make the impact to earn the team three points. He's a team-first guy, he's always put the team first. And so, I think that he’ll try to shift the focus on that and he's just going to want to be back out there to do his job and to help the team be successful.”
When it comes to the future, Guzan knows he can’t take anything for granted. As eager as he was to get off the scooter, out of the boot, out of the gym, onto the grass, onto his feet, he’s perhaps most eager to train with the team. At their end-of-year press conference, vice president and technical director Carlos Bocanegra, as well as Pineda, suggested that the goal is for Guzan to be back with the team sometime during the upcoming preseason.
Cropper and Curran are optimistic as well (no need to ask Guzan about his return – in his opinion, he’s already back). And while rehab has taught him the value of patience, when looking to the future, there’s an urgency for a player who knows he’s likely closer to the end of his professional career than the start.
So for 2023, Guzan has a clear goal in mind:
“To make up for lost time,” he says. “This year was frustrating on an individual level, it was frustrating on a collective level. At my age, you don't know when the end is, but you understand that the end is potentially closer than say somebody that's 21 or 22. So, I want to make the most of not only the year but every day. And that's competing to the highest level, making my teammates better, myself getting better. I think if I can do that, then I can help the group. And if those moments are good and we're able to win games, and ultimately, the goal is to compete for trophies again, and after the year we've had as a group, that's what we need to get back to.”