There’s a chant that Atlanta United supporters cry out when their goalkeeper makes a big save:
He’s a [redacted] wall!
The words describe Brad Guzan, the stalwart goal-stopper for Atlanta United. And the words, as concise as they are, describe him well. At 6-foot-4, Guzan is in fact big. He’s bald as well, the signature hairstyle – or lack thereof – he’s sported for as long as he’s been in Atlanta.
And he plays a pivotal position: goalkeeper. It’s his job to protect the goal. If the 5-Stripes consider Mercedes-Benz Stadium a fortress, then their goalkeeper is the guardian of the gatehouse, the last line of defense. A goalkeeper like Guzan, with experience and physical prowess, can be an imposing block for an opponent to squeeze a shot through – a wall, if you will.
Winning trophies, collecting clean sheets, captaining a squad that made Mercedes-Benz Stadium a fortress. For six years, the wall held strong and proud here in Atlanta.
But on April 16, 2022, that wall came crumbling down.
The foundation was built from a young age. Like most young children, Guzan had a lot of energy. His parents signed him up to play sports when he was three or four years old. He played baseball competitively, but when he reached around 12 years old, Guzan decided to focus on soccer.
“I was always a big kid, and I just fell in love with the game at a young age,” he says.
Although it’s the position he’s known for, Guzan didn’t start out as a keeper. He was a field player first, considered an asset by teammates. But his oldest brother played goalie in high school, and soon Guzan learned he enjoyed the dirty work required of the position. When he went to college at the University of South Carolina, he took on the mantle of wearing gloves full-time.
He was born in Evergreen Park, a suburb of Chicago. His dad worked two jobs, so his mom took up the main role of taking Guzan to his sports tournaments. He doesn’t necessarily credit the Midwest for his values. Instead, he suggests he was shaped by the lessons learned from observing his parents’ work ethic.
“If you want something, you have to be willing to work hard for it, put in the time and the effort to go and get it,” he says.
Seeing where hard work can get you, Guzan reevaluated his focus and decided that being a professional soccer player is what he wanted to be. He used that drive to play collegiately at the University of South Carolina, and it’s then that Guzan’s career began to take off. In fact, the press release announcing that Guzan will forgo his final two years of eligibility to begin his professional career is still on the official athletic website.
He was the no. 2 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft in 2005. He was selected by Chivas USA, a club that was a subsidiary of Chivas Guadalajara in Mexico. Chivas USA lasted 10 seasons in MLS before eventually disbanding. There, Guzan made 78 starts, leading Chivas USA to the playoffs in three of his four seasons there. In 2007, he was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.
The success at Chivas USA earned Guzan international attention. In 2006, he made his first appearance with the U.S. men’s national team. Two years later, he represented the U.S. at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Beijing wasn’t only rewarding because he got to play for his country. That summer, Guzan also received a life-changing phone call. It was around 2 or 3 a.m. in the morning, Guzan remembers, and the call was from Aston Villa, an English professional football club. The club secretary was on the phone telling Guzan his work permit had been approved, meaning he’d be able to sign with the English club.
That moment, Guzan realized his ultimate dream of playing for a massive European team in England, in the English Premier League, would come to fruition. It was a significant moment for Guzan, the gravity of which made it difficult for him to quiet his active mind.
“I just remember thinking ‘How am I going to go to sleep and prepare for training the next day?’” he says.
Guzan made the move to Europe, getting the chance to live out his lifelong dream. There, playing against some of the top talent in the world, the wall strengthened and gained fortitude. He faced world-renowned goal scorers such as Luis Suárez, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Didier Drogba and Harry Kane. Elite players that pushed Guzan to become a greater goalkeeper.
“Every day, you had to be at your best,” he says. “Every day, you had to be so focused to compete at that level and to play against the world’s best players, day in and day out.”
Guzan would go on to play eight seasons at Aston Villa from 2008-2016. He made 477 saves in the Premier League and 171 total appearances with the club. Aston Villa won at least 10 matches three seasons in a row that Guzan was a starter, putting themselves in the thick of competition in the top-flight English Premier League.
However, the 2016-17 season Aston Villa was relegated to the Championship for winning just three matches in the English Premier League the preceding year. That season, Guzan signed a contract with another English club, Middlesborough FC.
Things didn’t go well at Middlesborough, Guzan admits, and the 32-year-old realized that he wanted a change. His life was different than when he first arrived in Europe. By 2017, he had a young family. His wife, Breanne, had just had their first daughter. After speaking with his agent and his family, Guzan determined what his next professional step would be.
“We decided it was time to come back to the U.S.,” he says.
Through his time with U.S. Soccer, Guzan established a relationship with Carlos Bocanegra, the former captain of the U.S. men’s national team who became the technical director and vice president of Atlanta United in 2016. Guzan also met Atlanta United president Darren Eales multiple times. Through conversations with them, Guzan got a sense of the vision that Arthur Blank wanted for the team and for the city of Atlanta. After that, his decision was easy.
“To be able to see their goals come to life and see what Atlanta United has turned into, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” he says.
With an MLS expansion club, no one knows what to expect or what’s around the next corner, but Guzan noticed early that Atlanta had a talented team. They had a very good coach in Tata Martino and a well-constructed roster that brought in young talent like Tito Villalba and veterans like Michael Parkhurst. Together, the group made the MLS Cup Playoffs in the club’s inaugural season.
“What we were building on the field, it was starting to come together,” he says. “The first year was certainly exciting in terms of the fan base and the support, the craziness and the hoopla surrounding the club, that part was exciting. And of course, that comes when you win games. So, to have that success early made it that much more enjoyable to come to work every day.”
The following year in 2018, the club won the MLS Cup. Guzan made 38 appearances that season. He was the starting goalkeeper when the club shut out Portland Timbers 2-0 to lift the league trophy on December 8.
“When you’re winning games and there’s so much success around the team and around the club, it puts a smile on your face,” Guzan says.
Guzan is one of the few guys remaining from the 2018 roster that won the MLS Cup. The list is short: Guzan, Josef Martínez, Mikey Ambrose and Miles Robinson. Guzan has logged more starts for Atlanta United than any other player in club history (140). He’s been a consistent presence since the club’s first season in 2017 on the backline – a wall so steady it might be overlooked or underappreciated for its effectiveness.
His favorite moments at Atlanta United are, of course, lifting trophies. Like the MLS Cup in 2018, the Campeones Cup in 2019 and the U.S. Open Cup that same year. For Guzan, the feeling in those moments are indescribable – but that feeling is what athletes play the game for.
With such a tenure, Guzan knows better than anyone the highlights. But the 37-year-old also familiar with periods in the club history that weren’t as rosy. When the group fell short of expectations – when it felt like they were starting to climb up the mountain again, toward another trophy, toward another playoff run, but got knocked down.
This holistic perspective, taking the good with the bad, helps Guzan understand the fact that challenges are part of the journey. As a professional athlete, adversity requires looking inside yourself, to search within the group and ask ‘How do we get back on track and start to climb the mountain again?’
“I always say you have to enjoy the ride, you have to enjoy the journey and you have to be able to face adversity, and when you go through difficult moments, you certainly do, and you tend to come out stronger on the other side,” he says.
But there are moments that supersede winning and losing. For Guzan, it’s living out the values as a member of the club. During his time at Atlanta United, he’s served as an ambassador for the club’s Special Olympics Unified Team. He’s often seen cheering the team on the sidelines, taking in their training sessions and hanging out with the players at their events.
He’s an ambassador for the club in other aspects as well, such as doing community work, working with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta during Unite & Conquer Childhood Cancer month. He loves seeing the smile on kids’ faces when he visits them in the hospital or when they’re able to come out and visit the Training Ground.
“Seeing the impact that we have not only at the stadium on the field, but what we’re able to do in terms of out in the community,” he says. “When you see that and what the crest of Atlanta United represents to so many in this city, it’s an honor to be able to represent this club.”
His community involvement gives him perspective – or perhaps vice versa. But it helps strengthen Guzan, strengthen the wall, to function outside of the fortress on match days. It’s what helps him get through his first injury, his first one in his 18-year professional career.
The 37-year-old entered the 2022 season as a veteran on a young squad. He long ago earned the place of captain, and his is voice easily heard from the sidelines at training. When the whistle blows and players grab some water or squat to catch their breath, Guzan stays on his feet. The talks to teammates, instructs young players on how to see things more clearly, checks in with the coaches.
Going into Atlanta United’s match on April 16, Guzan felt strong. He went about his day as usual. He felt good during warm-ups and was focused. Atlanta United was hosting Eastern Conference opponent FC Cincinnati. After falling the weekend before on the road, valuable points at Mercedes-Benz Stadium were on the line for the 5-Stripes.
The score was 0-0 going into the second half. Guzan and Atlanta United were on their way to a clean sheet. Then, in the 73rd minute, Guzan went down. It was non-contact, “a nothing play.” Atlanta United had cleared the ball, then Guzan took a step – and something went wrong.
“I heard it first,” he says. “I instantly felt it. And before I could get my left foot down, I’d started to turn my body around because it felt as if I’d been kicked or hit with a baseball bat or a golf club.”
That instinct turned Guzan’s body so he could see who was behind him, who could’ve whacked him so hard to cause that level of pain. But his mind caught up with his response, and he realized that as the goalkeeper, he was the last line of defense. There was no one else behind him.
“As soon as I turned my head and confirmed I was the only one out there, it instantly set in,” he says. “I knew exactly what I’d done right away.”
From the ground, Guzan made eye contact with center back Miles Robinson. At first, Robinson looked at him puzzled, as if wondering why Guzan was crumpled on the ground not getting to the ball. When Guzan couldn’t get up, the referees stopped play. The pain itself only lasted for about 30-45 seconds. After that, Guzan felt a different set of emotions.
“I was angry,” he says. “I was mad, I was disappointed, I was frustrated.”
The last moment many Atlanta United fans saw of their big, bald, strong goalkeeper was him being carried off the pitch on a stretcher. Goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth, an MLS veteran who signed with Atlanta United as a free agent in the offseason and wasn’t expected to get much playing time behind Guzan, entered the match.
Behind the scenes, Guzan was put on a medical bed in the locker room. The team orthopedic, along with the team trainers, looked at the injury. They checked him over. He’d get an MRI to confirm, but everyone seemed to already know. Guzan had ruptured the Achilles tendon in his right leg. The injury would end his season – and require surgery and months of recovery.
“At that point, reality sets in,” he says. “You have a wave of emotions. There were some tears, there was anger, there were probably a few cuss words. It was just a rolling effect of emotions.”
It was a new experience for him, one he couldn’t make sense of at first. The clarity came later that evening, once he was home and his kids had gone to bed. Guzan lay in bed for hours, replaying the play, replaying the warm-up, trying to figure out what went wrong. He started asking himself questions like: What now? What’s next? What does the recovery look like? What does the surgery look like? He had a million questions without any answers.
“To have this happen, it’s new territory for me,” he says.
Surgery was scheduled. It was afternoon, and Breanne wanted to stay with him, but Guzan encouraged her to continue taking care of the kids. Guzan didn’t know exactly what to expect from his first major surgery, so his doctor was sure to walk through everything clearly. But there was one hang-up. Guzan wondered how the medical staff was going to physically lift the big, bald wall from one bed to another.
“I remember looking at Dr. Symbass, and obviously, I’m not a small guy, so I think I asked him, ‘Hey, you got some extra muscle in here to make sure I get from this table to that table and you guys don’t drop me?’ and he was like ‘Don’t worry, I called in the big muscle today.’”
Mario Cruz, head athletic trainer at Atlanta United, waited for Guzan to get out of surgery and drove him home. Guzan would sleep on a recliner chair in the living room and take the medication he needed.
“That was day 1 of the road to recovery,” Guzan says. “It’s time to fix this thing and get going.”
Supportive messages poured in for Guzan, wishing him the best in his recovery. From family, friends, teammates, coaches. When messages from the trainers at Atlanta United came in, Guzan told them something very specific.
“My message to them was ‘I don’t have time for your sympathy,’ but in a kind way,” he says. “But I told them, get ready to work because once I’m able, we’re full steam ahead and we’re going to fly through this recovery.”
After his surgery, Guzan made his way back to the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground to see his head coach. He spoke to Gonzalo Pineda about what his role would look like going forward. Guzan would be out for months, likely the entire season, but the team still had a lot of games left to play and he still wanted to be around his teammates. Pineda agreed and wanted Guzan to be a part of the group. He told Guzan to join the team in meetings, travel when he could and just be around the guys.
“That part makes you feel wanted and appreciated and makes you feel good at the time,” Guzan says. “But that being said, I also know that I have my own journey, my own road to recovery. So, it’s finding that balance of making sure my work gets done and being able to help the team in any way I can.”
And so, Guzan did just that. Seeing Guzan around the Training Ground became almost as common as when he was in playing shape – although this time he zips around the facility in his scooter. He takes in practice, watching in from the golf cart with his boot kicked up on the dash. He joins his teammates for lunch. Later in July, when he’s out of the boot, he travels with the team to Chicago.
“I know that I can still have an effect on the group in a positive way, and that’s definitely my focus.”
Positivity is a common sentiment with Guzan, and his alacrity is incomparable. Even when asked about the possibility of facing setbacks, Guzan admits he doesn’t think about the negative. Relentlessly optimistic, and keeping a smile on his face, is the only way he knows how to approach adversity.
“For me, it’s another challenge,” he says, smiling. “I’ve always accepted challenges. I’ve always faced them head on. This is probably up there with one of the toughest I’ve ever faced, but I’m ready for it.”
The approach seems simple – or inevitable. That there’s really no way to go but forward. But to do so with a smile is the approach that Guzan goes with. He fills his head with positive energy when it comes to doing the work. Even as his arms are ready to fall off from the assault bike or ropes or gym exercises, even when his legs feel like jelly once he gets running again, even when he’s yelling at the trainers out frustration. Because, for Guzan, the work, the sweat, the fight, the ferocity – that’s progress. And progress puts a smile on his face.
His kids and his family are his main motivation. Guzan and his wife have four kids. When Guzan first got injured, his kids were initially cautious. When he fell in April, they relented their post match tradition. Usually after Atlanta matches, the kids spend some time on the field and run around with other players’ kids and their families. But after the Cincinnati match, they met Guzan by the car. That’s when they saw him in crutches for the first time.
Quickly after surgery, Guzan returned to “daddy duties.” Like his parents were to him, Guzan wants to show his children the value of hard work. And he’s still able to do many of the things he could before. He can still get his kids a glass of milk, he can still watch them play basketball in the driveway or throw the football with them – he’s just doing it from a lawn chair.
“When and if I’m feeling a bit down or a bit low on motivation, I look at them and it instantly changes to getting back to work and showing my kids that injuries are a part of sports,” he says. “In life, you’re going to face adversity and it’s how you approach that adversity and it’s how you apply yourself to get better and come through that adversity. That’s what I’m trying to do here in terms of giving them a good example when faced with challenges how to overcome them.”
In May, a month after the injury, Guzan wheels himself into the studio at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground in Marietta, Ga. His right leg is at a 90-degree angle with the shin resting on the bed of a scooter and his toes, in a boot, hanging off the end. He uses his left as a motor to create momentum to pump himself through the room and around the equipment.
“My left hamstring is certainly getting a workout,” he laughs.
This is how he gets around the Training Ground, post-injury, post-surgery. He’s not wearing Atlanta United gear, opting for a dark polo shirt and khaki shorts – perhaps what dressing up looks like as a professional athlete who’s also the father of young children.
Perhaps it’s for that reason, one month out from the injury, that Guzan calls his life “chaotic.” He says it with a resigned chuckle and a smile. His pain is low, practically nonexistent. On a scale of 1-10, he puts it at a one – or even a zero. His movement is limited, shown by the grey boot on his right foot that he wears for a total of 8-9 weeks and the scooter he relies on to glide through the Training Ground.
His positivity shines through. He talks about the good times in his career, he talks about the emotions of it all. But if there’s one thing that puts a bigger smile on Guzan’s face, it’s the lasting memory of hearing the fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium chant out his name once – and hearing that chant again when he makes his return to the pitch.
“That’s the day I’m itching for, that’s the day I’m looking forward to,” he says. “When that day is, I don’t know exactly. But I know hopefully it’s going to be sooner than whatever the experts tell me. And that’s a day I’m longing for in terms of knowing that I’m back on the field, knowing that I’m fit, healthy, able to compete and do what I love.”
The big, bald wall will return in 2023.