Brad Guzan 2.0: Keeper gets fresh start in MLS return with Atlanta United
DENVER -- A new chapter beckons for Brad Guzan.
Without question, the U.S. international has endured two hugely difficult seasons at club level. There were a pair of relegations from the English Premier League, first with Aston Villa at the end of 2015-16, and then again this season with Middlesbrough.
Meanwhile, playing time was hard to come by with Boro and, when he did get on the field, his team's struggles mirrored his own. This included getting nutmegged three times in a 3-0 loss to Chelsea on May 8 that earned him the wrath of fans.
As the 6-foot-4 goalkeeper settled into his chair on Wednesday at the U.S. team's hotel in downtown Denver, upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico were foremost in his thoughts, but his new adventure with MLS expansion club Atlanta United was also top of mind.
But as he looks forward, he also has time for reflection and concedes there were lessons to be learned from his Middlesbrough experience. He went in thinking he would compete for the No. 1 job, only to learn after he arrived that this wouldn't be the case.
"I had spoken to the manager [Aitor Karanka]," said Guzan. "He had kind of told me that more or less, as long as the other goalkeeper [Victor Valdes] was fit, that he would play. And when you're a goalkeeper and only one of you can play, you understand that. But when you go into a new team, a new club, you're expecting a fair fight to battle it out to play. You train hard, week in week out, and hopefully when you get your chance you're able to take it. But sometimes, it's not always a fair fight."
Since Middlesbrough was a newly promoted team, Guzan knew that the club's only goal was to retain Premier League status; staying in the EPL "would be like getting a Champions League spot," he said. But Boro was mired in the relegation fight all season, fired Karanka in March, and ultimately failed to avoid the drop. The club finished 19th out of 20 teams, winning just five games all season.
"It's consuming; nobody wants to be in that position," said Guzan of relegation battles. "You have to try and find a way to get results and get the best out of each other on a weekly basis. But there was a lot going on behind closed doors that people don't see and people don't understand or realize. That probably affected things on the pitch, and when you have situations like that happening, it takes its toll on players and it takes its toll ultimately on the team."
Guzan made no attempt to pass off responsibility for his own mistakes, but refused to let the last two campaigns define his time in England, where he spent nine seasons.
"I'm big enough, I'm strong enough in that you put mistakes behind you," he said. "You try and move on. For me, being able to close that chapter of my career, being in England in general, it was good. Yes, there were some bad moments, but at the same time there were good moments, and ultimately it makes you stronger as a player and stronger as a person."
The U.S. national team has served as a refuge at times for American players during difficult periods abroad. It's a different team and a different atmosphere and the chance to reconnect with international teammates can do plenty to wash away club disappointments.
That has certainly proved to be the case for Guzan, though the current situation amounts to a different kind of reunion. When the now-32-year-old was first called up to the national team in 2006, it was the final January camp of coach Bruce Arena's first stint in charge. Now Guzan finds himself again playing for his first national team manager.
"Back then, I probably didn't have as much interaction with Bruce as I do now," he said. "As a young kid, you're just trying to keep your mouth shut and absorb as much as you can from the senior players, from other guys. Now, having had the experience I've had with the national team and also being in Europe, you come in and you're a little bit older, you understand how things work, and you understand the importance of games like we have coming up."
Guzan also finds himself in a familiar position: Occupying the No. 2 spot and backing up Tim Howard. When Howard took a sabbatical from the national team at the beginning of this World Cup cycle, Guzan started for a time. Now Howard has reclaimed his place, but this development hasn't lessened Guzan's enthusiasm for playing with the national team.
"I hadn't been playing consistently at Middlesbrough, so it's quite difficult to come into your national team and then all of a sudden play a game," he said. "You need to be playing week in and week out. I'm looking forward to getting down to Atlanta and hopefully doing that, and then you have something to stand on in terms of arguing your case. You do it with your performances."
After Sunday's game in Mexico, Guzan will join his new Atlanta United teammates and will be eligible to play when the summer transfer window opens next month. He says he had offers to remain in England, but also knew keeping his spot in the national team meant getting consistent minutes; Atlanta provided that opportunity.
Guzan knows a thing or two about expansion teams. His rookie season in 2005 was also Chivas USA's inaugural campaign, which yielded just four wins in 32 games. Guzan went on to be named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2007, but the contrast between how Chivas USA and Atlanta United, which already has five victories, have navigated their expansion campaigns couldn't be more jarring.
"I think Atlanta has gone about their expansion the right way, with the right types of players, exciting players," Guzan said. "I think you watch their games and it's an attack-minded team going forward and that's exciting for the fans. When you get to the fans and you look at the support that has been generated in such a short amount of time, it's an exciting team to be joining, and I'm buzzing to get down there and get started."
It helps, of course, to have a front office willing to spend on players and a coach with the pedigree of former Barcelona and Argentina boss Tata Martino.
"You look at his resume and it speaks for itself," said Guzan. "Right there, he earns the respect of the team, the respect of the players. When you have players coming from South America to MLS, from Europe -- you have players from all over the world that are now coming together in Atlanta -- it takes someone special to get everyone on the same page.
"It takes someone special to understand the players and for the players to understand the manager and his staff. To see what he's done in such a short amount of time I think speaks volumes for him."
And it makes for a compelling new chapter in Guzan's career.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.