As a club that wants to play on the front foot, Atlanta United has a variety of attackers.
There’s Luiz Araújo, the lightning fast, left-footed Brazilian who kicked off the 2022 season with the team’s first goal. There’s Jake Mulraney, the deceptively quick Irishman who thrives in 1v1 situations like the one when he scored to win the match over Charlotte FC just 13 minutes into his first appearance of the season. There’s Josef Martínez, the fastest player in MLS history to score 100 goals across all competitions, including the skillful volley against FC Cincinnati to secure Atlanta United’s playoff berth in 2021. And then, there’s Brad Guzan….
Wait, Guzan? As in the 6-foot-4, handy goalkeeper?
“Brad is the first attacker,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “Brad is the one that starts our buildup, our play out from the back, our play out from the goal kicks, and he’s the first one in possession in our team.”
This is Pineda’s attack-minded scheme. Every player is an attacker, including the starting goalkeeper who’s made 680 career saves in MLS, including nine this year.
For a team to attack and create chances, it needs the ball. So, as every player is an attacker, every player defends. And that includes the club’s all-time leading goal-scorer. Like Guzan, Martínez has been put in an unlikely – but accurate – role as the team’s first defender.
“Yes, we want him to score goals,” Pineda said. “But he’s the first one to press a goalkeeper, to press the center back. He’s the first defender in our unit, and he’s embracing that.”
The two have been getting on board with Pineda’s perspective. Martínez takes pride in pressuring and defending. Meanwhile, Guzan understands his place to secure the ball so his team can build the attack. The keeper seems to have adopted his manager’s emphasis on creating chances, sounding almost like a guy who’s scoring the goals himself.
“Not just passing the ball to pass the ball, not just keeping possession to keep possession, but understanding why we’re keeping possession, understanding what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to create chances,” Guzan said. “I think that part puts a smile on my face when you think about going that way and scoring goals.”
While Guzan can smile when his team takes chances and looks to score goals, Martínez’s face is focused and intense during that part of play. He doesn’t take the role lightly and has learned to accept the high expectations that come with being a leader as well as a goal scorer.
“There’s always pressure, I always feel it a lot,” he said. “Whether we’re winning or losing. I know that the pressure falls down on me. So, we need people who can help, everyone who can help. But of course, I always feel that pressure.”
Guzan and Martínez form the tips of Atlanta’s shape on the pitch. They stretch the team’s experience to the highest and lowest parts. And with the fluidity of Pineda’s lineups so far in 2022, the two veterans have held steady at their posts. Guzan has played every minute so far in 2022. Martínez was subbed off in the 74th minute in the 3-1 win against Sporting Kansas City but has played a full 90 in each of the three matches since then.
“Something that I’m very proud of are those two veteran players that we have who can say that almost in opposite sides of the field – one saving goals, the other one scoring goals,” Pineda said. “They’re trying to do whatever it takes to win games and that’s something I’m very happy and proud of those two.”
Out of every player on the roster, Guzan and Martínez have been with the club the longest. The MLS home opener against Sporting Kansas City on Feb. 27 marked the 100th regular season start for Martínez. He trails only his veteran counterpart, the attacker on the other end of the pitch: Guzan.
Guzan has started more MLS regular season matches than any other player on Atlanta United (136) and has over 10 seasons of MLS experience.
He’s known as a vocal leader. Observing practice, his voice is loud. He’s constantly giving instructions to teammates, whether it’s yelling down the pitch from his line or pulling a player aside to talk 1-on-1 after finishing a drill. It’s a big reason why Guzan is a team captain, a responsibility that seems to fit him as well as a pair of goalkeeper gloves.
“You need guys all over the field to take up ownership of what’s happening,” he said. “You need guys directing traffic, being commanding, helping other guys around them. With or without an armband, I do that. That’s my personality. That’s part of the position as a goalkeeper, you see the entire field. So regardless if it’s a position for me, that’s what I play.”
Their inverted roles balance the team. It also helps the team make the most of its opportunities. It might be difficult for veterans who have as much experience as these two to take up a different mantle at this stage of their career, but Guzan and Martínez embrace the opportunity, although both will always stay true to their tasks.
Even though he’s the first attacker, Guzan will be the wall on the backline saving shots. And while he may be the first defender, Martínez maintains his priority is scoring goals, as any true no. 9 would.
“My job is to score goals,” he said. “We need to do the best we can every day because the day that I stop scoring goals, they’ll kick me out of here. So I have to keep scoring.”