On the pitch following Atlanta United’s 2-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes on February 25, there’s uninhibited celebration. Atlanta players meet at midfield, embrace each other, their coaches and staff. There’s a sense of euphoria, and perhaps relief, amongst the group for the collective resilience and late game heroics that led to the team winning their first match of the 2023 season.
Among the hugs, the smiles, the cheers, the congratulations, there’s a small yet meaningful moment. It’s brief, a meeting that might go unnoticed in the team’s triumph. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan and center back Miles Robinson find each other. They hug, then Robinson exclaims three words:
“We’re back, baby!”
The two have been on a long journey, almost simultaneously, to get to this moment. Guzan and Robinson both suffered season-ending injuries in 2022. The team’s first win of the season also marks their first match back from injury.
For Guzan, it means the end of the first major injury and recovery of his 18-year professional career. The moment is the culmination of months stuck in the training room doing a gazillion toe curls and calf raises. The end of the anticipation to get back on the grass that, at times, was a frustrating wait. The end of wanting to be on the field with the group, a member of the team, helping the club reach its goals.
The return has been long, long awaited.
“The journey itself has, at times, felt really long. And at other times it's felt like it's flown by,” Guzan says. “It was a bit of an up-and- down road, but one that, looking back on it, I can say I accomplished it. I beat it. And I now have a new Achilles to show for it. And I’m raring to go.”
48 days until the season opener
Preseason training for Atlanta United begins on Sunday, Jan. 8. It was a short and full offseason with the FIFA World Cup in Qatar and MLS free agency.
When it takes the field again at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground, the team looks a little different than it did at the end of 2022. Players such as Marcelino Moreno and Alan Franco have been loaned out to other clubs. There are some fresh faces, players who’ve joined during free agency this offseason, such as Derrick Etienne Jr. and Quentin Westberg.
Among the group is Guzan. It’s his first day back with the team since he ruptured his Achilles tendon on April 16, 2022. The expectation, and the hope, for the club was that Guzan would be ready by the beginning of the 2023 preseason. Through Guzan’s hard work and the care of the club’s medical team, he reaches that goal.
“I think I joked with our medical team that at different periods of the process, I've medically cleared myself just because I was eager to be back out there,” Guzan says.
His return to training makes Guzan feel like a youth player again – and he kind of looks like one. He bounces around the pitch, a bundle of energy, running on his toes, climbing on the backs of the coaching staff, vocalizing instructions, bantering with teammates, sprinting through the team’s welcome tunnel on his healthy, recovered heel – right behind Robinson.
The game becomes simple for Guzan. He’s just a kid again, excited to be out on the pitch, to put his boots on and kick the soccer ball around with his friends, his teammates.
“To have that moment, to be with the group and have the shackles taken off, and just allow me to roam and do what I do in terms of goalkeeping and training and be in the small-sided games and things like that – it's a buzz that you have and a competitiveness that you have inside you. To have that back, it felt so rewarding,” he says.
28 days until the season opener
The first test of the preseason occurs on Saturday, Jan. 28. Atlanta United travels the 115 miles up I-75 to Finley Stadium to take on Chattanooga FC.
It’s the first time in 2023 that Atlanta’s squad plays a competitive match, and there’s an added heaviness to the day. The group mourns the loss of Anton Walkes, who passed away in January. Walkes played at Atlanta United for three seasons in 2017 and from 2020-2021. He was 25 years old.
In Chattanooga, Guzan makes the starting lineup, but it’s a difficult day for the goalkeeper. The team wear armbands with “AW” on them to honor Walkes.
“There was a lot going through my mind individually on my situation,” Guzan says. “Seeing Miles out there, that was awesome. Then, the Anton situation which had occurred a few days earlier. Having all of that then rolled into one for our first game, it was emotional. I'd be lying if I said otherwise. Soccer seemed second-best at that moment.”
With heavy hearts, the group goes forward and plays the game. Guzan and Robinson both go 45 minutes, playing the full first half.
It’s a positive sign to see Guzan and Robinson return to the starting XI and play real minutes, but there’s some rust. Guzan experiences some nerves and anxiety – not only about his Achilles but getting back into his best form. He wants to feel unbeatable and dominate. But in the first half, play goes back-and-forth and Atlanta United gives up three goals.
Working to find his rhythm leads to a bad mistake in the match, an early goal. But the situation helps Guzan understand that his process isn’t over. It shows him that getting back to 100 percent isn’t going to happen suddenly. He understands that it takes work, listening to his fitness coaches and the medical staff, doing what they ask of him, and continuing to practice the virtue he learned during his recovery: patience.
“The first goal and just a rush of blood to the head and a silly mistake. It’s something that I'm able to look back and laugh on,” he says. “But even still, right? There's still moments where you're trying to push yourself and get back to that elite level. That's a daily process. That's not something that happens overnight.”
26 days until the season opener
The next stage of Atlanta United’s preseason involves going international. The club returns to Mexico, like they did in 2022, departing Atlanta on Monday, Jan. 30. This time, they stay in Mexico City, the capital city bordered by mountains and two volcanoes.
The trip lasts 10 days. During that time, Guzan and the team stay at a hotel in the southern part of the city. They train at the Mexican National Team headquarters. Getting to the facility requires loading coaches and staff into multiple sprinter vans. The route goes through narrow streets, past homes, shops and stands.
The trip provides Guzan a chance to focus on his position in a different environment. The extra factor is the altitude of the city, which players immediately notice.
Portions of training are spent with field players on one end of the pitch. On the other end, goalkeeper coach Liam Curran takes his position group through drills. Curran’s been an integral part in Guzan’s recovery, conducting individual training sessions in the offseason. Now, the two of them have the chance to continue their work with the group.
“Liam does a fantastic job of coming up with the sessions, but then also orchestrating the sessions to performing the sessions,” Guzan says. “It's not just X's and O's, draw it up and then go out and compete and do it. There's a lot of conversation there.”
Curran puts Guzan through specific goalkeeping drills along with the other goalies Westberg, Clément Diop and 2s goalkeeper Sebastián Guerra. They work on their accuracy, defending shots, their reaction times. They also play small games. When the field players compete in soccer tennis, the goalkeepers make their own version where they pass the ball over a mannequin using their hands.
“For me, that's where it started to feel normal again and come back to me, in terms of the goalkeeping position itself,” Guzan says. “Whether it be from analyzing it from a training session to a game, or game to a training session, and having that understanding of what we're trying to accomplish and what we're trying to do as a team and how the goalkeeper can affect the backline and the midfielders. Those moments and conversations are extremely important. So, that was kind of the start of getting back into it, specifically what Gonzalo Pineda’s 2023 team, especially the goalkeeping position, is going to be required.”
Atlanta United’s preseason slate of friendlies continues in Mexico. The team has two matches scheduled during their 10-day trip. As the preseason progresses, the group’s confidence continues to grow – as does Guzan’s.
The first match is against Atlante FC, the second-division champion. In this match, Guzan once again starts but he’s in his head. He’s not necessarily thinking about the injury but finds that he’s overwhelmed with gratitude, appreciating the moment of being back on the pitch.
The two sides kick off at Estadio de la Ciudad de los Deportes, an old stadium in Mexico City next door to the world’s largest bullring. The Mexican club throws different things at Atlanta United, and the 5-Stripes show fortitude as they figure out how to adjust to Atlante’s unusual tactics. Guzan and the backline concede an early goal, and the first group finishes the half in a 1-1 draw.
“Being able to adjust and figure them out a little bit, that part was important,” Guzan says. “So yes, at times our football was good and our sequences were good. But I think for me, it was more about the resilience of figuring out a way to adapt to that game and understand what that first game was asking of us as a group.”
Atlanta United concludes the Mexico trip with a second friendly, a matchup against Cruz Azul of Liga MX at the renowned Estadio Azteca. He’s played here before, but competing at such a world-class venue presents an opportunity Guzan considers an honor and a privilege. It’s a closed match, without any fans in attendance. Still, to play in one of the great stadiums of world soccer feels like a good way to end the trip.
In this match, Guzan feels a little bit more like his old self. This time, when he comes onto the pitch, he knows he’s there to work, he knows he’s there to do a job. He wants to go out and do it to the best of his ability. The moment is no longer about just being happy to be there, it’s more about being part of the group and working hard for his teammates to play well.
“We went into the Cruz Azul game with even more confidence than the first and understanding how we wanted to play and really implement ourselves in our tactics on them. And I think we were able to do that, especially in the first half for longer stretches of the game. That part was encouraging as obviously we then departed to Mexico to come back to Atlanta,” he says.
16 days until the season opener
The team flies home to Atlanta on February 9. With the home opener just two weeks away, the buildup for the MLS season starts to ramp up.
First, the club has two more preseason matches. The American Family Insurance Cup is on February 15 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The team debuts the new 17s’ kit and hosts Toluca FC from Liga MX. Guzan doesn’t play in the match but gets to take in the sights and the sounds. His anticipation for a real Atlanta United match day grows as the halo board pans to him on the sideline. The crowd welcomes him with a chant of “Guzan.”
The following Saturday, the team plays its last match of the preseason. Atlanta United travels to face the league’s newest expansion club, St. Louis CITY SC.
Guzan starts this match and the 5-Stripes take home a 2-1 win against MLS competition. It’s not perfect, but the group feels good about their last competition heading into the season opener.
When reflecting on the match against St. Louis, Guzan hardly recalls his injury or his recovery. He’s entirely focused on the match and the outcome, what the team learned and what they can take away to make themselves better. Through the seven weeks of the preseason, the team has built confidence and improved with each match. As a large part of that, Guzan is able to build his own personal confidence and work himself back into top form.
“If you look at our confidence level throughout the preseason, it continued to rise and our level of play continued to rise,” he says. “It was important to get a win, especially going into our first game against another MLS opponent, so that that part is encouraging. But more so, it was how we played and the tactics that we were able to impose on St. Louis and what we were trying to do. That part was encouraging.”
5 days until the season opener
With the St. Louis match behind them, Atlanta United heads into their first MLS match week of the year. The club has signed a few new players during this time to deepen their roster. Striker Miguel Berry and defender Luis Abram join the squad. There’s a buzz around Atlanta at the onset of a new season. Around the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground, the anticipation grows.
For Guzan, this moment has been a long time coming. In the time since his injury, his schedule has constantly changed. He’s rehabbed in the mornings, in the afternoons. He’s trained in the offseason. It’s not the usual, steady routine for the 18-year veteran, and the goalkeeper isn’t the only one affected. He’s had a strong team of support, at home and at the Training Ground, that helped him reach this point.
“I'm excited to know over the last nine months of all the work that's gone in, be it myself, be it the people around me, my support staff, my family, my wife and kids. I mean my wife and kids have been phenomenal throughout this entire process… Without them, I certainly wouldn't be in this position. Leading up to that first game, they're excited to be back in the stadium and watch dad play,” he says.
Guzan reflects on the day that when he was in Mexico he took some of the younger players to see the pyramids at Teotihuacán. It was a culture-building moment and gave Guzan quality time with some of the club’s younger players. While he’s there, Guzan thinks of his loved ones back home. He doesn’t miss an opportunity to make sure they know he cares. He brings his kids presents back – stones made of obsidian, keychains with pyramids on them – the little things that get the family excited and feel appreciated.
Guzan is also grateful for the support system at the club, the ones who worked with Guzan day in and day out. They were there for him seconds after the injury, post-surgery, in rehab, on the pitch and in the medical room after training. They instructed him to do those gazillion calf raises and got him healthy in time to play in the preseason.
“I’m feeling great,” Guzan says. “Physically, I feel really good. Mentally, I feel good. It's been a long journey with this date in mind throughout the entire process. So, I feel excited. I feel ready. It's a big testament to the amount of work that everyone on the outside has been willing to put in, in terms of the medical staff – Liam [Curran], Jack [Kimber], Sean [Cropper] and Mario [Cruz] and all the work that everyone has been able to do to get me back in and ready for the game Saturday.”
Each day that passes by in that final week up to the season opener, Guzan's butterflies start to flutter more and more. The week that once felt lightyears away after his injury is nearly here.
“I’m excited to be back in the stadium and be back part of the group and really be counted on,” he says. “It’s a feeling of excitement. I've always said if you don't have the butterflies in your stomach for game day and match day, then you probably shouldn't be doing this. Those butterflies are starting to ramp up a bit as we are getting closer and closer. And for me, that's a that's a good thing.”
0 days until the season opener
The day finally arrives. February 25.
It’s Atlanta United’s first MLS match of the 2023 regular season. It’s at home; a full-venue crowd is expected at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It’s time for the 17s to get loud and rowdy for their team again. It’s time for the 5-Stripes to start the season on the front foot.
And it’s time for Guzan’s return.
The goalkeeper runs through the matchday routine he hasn’t completed in more than 10 months. He arrives to the stadium with the team, wearing his suit, greeting supporters and signing his name on the Golden Spike. He goes into the locker room, puts on his goalkeeper kit, wraps his fingers in tape, puts those fingers in goalkeeper gloves. He laces up his boots and straps on the captain’s armband.
The teams kick off. Guzan not only plays, he plays very well. The goalkeeper makes three saves in the match. While they give up an early goal to San Jose Earthquakes in the 12th minute, Atlanta United doesn’t surrender another to the Quakes. Guzan is so dialed into the match, he doesn’t even hear the crowd in the 18th minute when they chant his name for his first save. (As he recalls, he jokes that he was busy yelling at Andrew Gutman.)
The home team trails most of the match. Going into second-half-stoppage time, San Jose leads by a goal. It starts to feel like the home opener will end in disappointment for the 5-Stripes.
Then, Thiago Almada receives a short corner from Brooks Lennon. He takes a touch and puts the ball on his right foot. The shot slides into the net, hitting the crossbar, and bounces inside for the Atlanta United equalizer.
Guzan was so far up the pitch for the corner kick, he meets Almada for his goal celebration. He runs into the midfielder and gives him a celebratory pat to congratulate him on saving a point for the home team.
But the story doesn’t end there. In the final breaths of stoppage time, Atlanta United draws a foul. Almada steps up to take the free kick. He places it perfectly in the top right corner where, in the words of broadcaster Jason Longshore on the radio call, no goalkeeper on the planet could save it.
Guzan responds emphatically. He pumps his fists, jumps high in the air, looks at the supporter section going crazy behind him. The final whistle blows, securing Atlanta United’s epic comeback to win their MLS season opener. Guzan rejoices with his teammates, including Robinson. The supporters vote Guzan the winner of the Golden Spike of Excellence. His last touches on the field for the night are with the supporters, taking selfies, telling them how much the team needs them, hammering in the Golden Spike.
A pretty great return.
"It felt great to be back out there," Guzan says. "It felt great to be with the guys. It felt great to play my part and do my job and help us get three points. Everyone was phenomenal tonight in terms of the work rate and just getting after it and not throwing in the towel."
Brad Guzan doesn’t know what the future holds for him. This past year has given him a different perspective, one that knows not to take anything for granted.
He knows that he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. But he also knows that the passion is still there. At 38 years old, being faced with a season-ending injury could’ve been the moment to hang up his boots. It could’ve been the chance to go gently into the good night of the broadcast booth, make a career change, stay involved in the game in some other capacity.
But that’s not Guzan. That’s not the worker, the fighter, the banterer, the captain, the competitor, the enduring optimist. That’s not Atlanta’s big, bald, resilient wall.
“I still have those butterflies, I still have that competitive spirit,” Guzan says. “I get mad when I lose small-sided games. I cheer like a 10-year-old little kid when we win small-sided or two-touch or little competitions. I still have that burning desire and feel that I can compete at the highest level and be an asset to the group. I’m focused purely on helping the group win games, and ultimately helping this club get back to where I know it can be. Because there's a lot of good people at this football club that deserve the applause and the plaudits and the positive energy. And all of that comes with winning soccer games.”
As for Atlanta United, the club enters its seventh MLS season with a memorable performance. It feels like a new era in many ways. The club has a new president and CEO in Garth Lagerwey. The league has a new broadcast partner in Apple and a new streaming service, MLS Season Pass. There’s Leagues Cup and world-class signings and lifting up Major League Soccer on the global stage.
Each new season brings with it a new beginning. That’s why, when meeting with reporters after the match on Saturday, Guzan gives them some direct words. He tells them to forget about last year. This is a new season, a new beginning. This season has a life of its own and will tell its own story.
What that could mean for Atlanta United, and what it could mean for Guzan, we don’t yet know. What we do know is that there is possibility and hope and good things ahead. There's a new beginning for every single player in Atlanta United’s locker room, including the big, bald 38-year-old with a brand-new Achilles who approaches each day on the soccer pitch not like it’s his last – but like it’s his first:
“One of the guys said the other day, there's no reason why every single player in that locker room can't have the best season of their career. And when you think about it like that, it puts things into perspective. And that's what we're going to be looking to do.”