BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Brad Guzan’s first outing in his native Chicago since his return to MLS last year ended with victory and his all-conquering Atlanta United team atop the Supporters’ Shield standings.
Guzan was in strong form, producing three saves and marshaling his backline superbly as United stretched their unbeaten run to eight games, their 7-1-1 record giving them a two-point lead in the Shield race.
Guzan, who grew up about eight miles from Toyota Park in Evergreen Park on Chicago’s South Side, was happy to be back in familiar surroundings and among familiar faces. However, Premier League veteran and longtime US international insisted the most important feature of the night was getting the three points.
“At the end of the day, three points is all that matters,” Guzan told MLSsoccer.com after Atlanta pulled out a 2-1 win over the Fire. “It wasn’t the prettiest, we knew we were going to have to roll our sleeves up and battle a bit. It was a fight and luckily afterwards we came out with three points.”
While Atlanta’s youthful, dynamic and exciting attack has received most of the attention and headlines this year, United’s unheralded backline has grown in stature and confidence since their 4-0 humbling at the Houston Dynamo in the first game of the season.
Central to that defensive run have been Guzan’s assured performances between the posts, as well as Michael Parkhurst's leadership in the middle of the backline.
“We know that if we’re able to keep it close, if we’re able to keep it at a zero or even at a one, that more often than not we’re going to win games,” Parkhurst said. “We just have the attacking prowess to score two, three, four goals every time we play. So we know defensively, if we just cover each other, if we make plays, play aggressively, give Brad good chances, Brad’s going to make some big saves for us throughout games as well, like he did tonight.”
That defensive solidity and togetherness has been evident throughout the run that has seen them keep three clean sheets and concede more than one goal just once, in a 2-2 tie at New York City FC on April 15.
“We’ve been able to be on the same page,” Guzan added. “We’ve been able to fight through some difficult moments in games and that’s important that we have a strong mentality. It’s important that we find a way to win these types of games and thankfully we’ve been doing that, so it’s been good.”
Atlanta played catch-up in the playoff race for much of last season, before a strong finish saw them climb to fourth in the Shield standings. But having hit the top with just nine of the season’s 34-game program run, is there a belief that they could be title contenders in their second year in MLS?
“Listen, I mean it’s nice to be there but at the same time there’s a lot of football to be played,” Guzan insisted. “We’re not going to get overly excited about where we’re at right now, it’s all about where you finish. We’ve got a tough game on Wednesday [at home to Sporting Kansas City] and then next Sunday [at Orlando City], so it’s going to be a busy week for us but it’s good to start off with a win.”
Guzan made a point to meet with family and friends after the game, and with the team spending the night in Chicago before flying back to Atlanta on Sunday morning, he hinted there might have been further opportunity to reacquaint with old friends.
“We leave tomorrow, so we’ll see what they’re up to at some point and see how it goes,” he added, with a smile.