Guzan's adaptation in Atlanta will help determine his place at the World Cup
If some veterans arrive in Major League Soccer from Europe with little left to prove, Brad Guzan's situation is very much the opposite.
Less than a year from the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the hotly contested No. 1 goalkeeper spot for the U.S. men's national team is within Guzan's reach, but Tim Howard still stands in his way.
Guzan, 32, could make his Atlanta United debut as early as Friday night at Orlando City (7 p.m. ET on ESPN/WatchESPN), having signed from the English club Middlesbrough earlier this year and been released from the U.S.'s Gold Cup roster at the beginning of this week.
At the moment, Guzan -- still so fresh to Georgia that he barely had time to unpack -- is understandably keeping his focus on his new club team.
Recruited by United sporting director and former U.S. teammate Carlos Bocanegra, Guzan was impressed from the outset by the scale of Atlanta's grand plans. Almost any player who'd left MLS in 2008 and returned now would find the league barely recognizable; that's especially true when the club he left behind was now-defunct Chivas USA, and the one he's joining is widely lauded as the most ambitious expansion club since the Seattle Sounders debuted in 2009.
"There were some good times, but ultimately it was a tough time at Chivas. The owner wasn't completely invested in the club, and he didn't totally know what to expect in MLS," Guzan said, and that is in stark contrast to Atlanta's Arthur Blank, who also owns the NFL's Falcons. "The league has changed so much since I left, and it has changed for the better."
Guzan arrives as a midseason goalkeeping reinforcement for a team firmly in the MLS Cup playoff race and hoping to take the next step into a genuine playoff contender. If that sounds like a familiar narrative, it is.
Howard followed a similar path a year ago, landing in Colorado in the summer and helping lead the Rapids to the Western Conference finals before an injury cut his postseason short. As always, the man who cemented himself as a national icon with his heroics at the last World Cup is also the biggest obstacle standing between Guzan and the top spot with the U.S.
Their career trajectories have been so intertwined that Guzan just laughs when asked whether he has grown tired of answering questions about Howard.
"That's just you guys [the media] doing your job," Guzan said. "It's part and parcel with the position. When you are where we are, that's part of it."
From the time Guzan first broke into the national team more than a decade ago, he has been considered Howard's understudy, biding his time until the player six years his senior finally began to decline. But the transition hasn't gone as smoothly as Guzan might have hoped.
It was seemingly Guzan's job to lose last summer, when then-coach Jurgen Klinsmann had him as the team's No. 1 ahead of Copa America Centenario. However, the U.S. coaching change to Bruce Arena and Guzan's self-described "difficult" season with Boro, as they were relegated from the Premier League, have muddied the waters.
There are a few young upstarts making their case for the gig, but as of now, it certainly feels as though it's going to come down to Howard versus Guzan, yet again.
The promise of regular playing time was one draw of joining up with Atlanta, as was the appeal of getting in on the ground floor of such an ambitious project. As important was the personal fit: According to Guzan, when you get older you learn more about what exactly you need for yourself, and United checks many of the boxes required at this stage of his career.
"There were a few personal reasons, for my family and I, probably more so for myself," Guzan said of his need for a fresh start after floating in and out of favor with Aston Villa and Middlesbrough. "It's no secret that the last few years have been somewhat difficult. Not that you shy away from adversity, but those challenges take their toll."
On the U.S. front, Guzan had multiple, productive conversations with Arena while he was participating in the ongoing Gold Cup.
"The thing about Bruce is that he's very open in his conversations and his communication," Guzan said. "We've had good conversations. I'll keep those between me and him, but those conversations have been good."
What that means come next June remains to be seen, but how Guzan fits into his new surroundings will play a big part in his chances of starting in Russia. At 38, Howard can't continue for much longer and the U.S. has a proven veteran waiting in the wings, ready to claim the job he has always wanted.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.