Brad Guzan Exclusive: 'Goalkeeping Is A Constant Learning Process'

By Tim Ellis

News • Jun 12, 2024

Brad Guzan Exclusive: 'Goalkeeping Is A Constant Learning Process'

Brad Guzan is a goalkeeper who has seen it all from both sides of the Atlantic. The craft is all about graft. The learning curve has been truly international too.

Brad Guzan is extolling the virtues of the Premier League halfway through our conversation. After all, his old club Aston Villa have just made it into the modern Champions League. This is not the ‘the best league in the world’ point of view, but a transparent comment on the gulf that existed between the early Millennium MLS and the EPL.

“Whether it was shot stopping, reactions, or distribution everything was that much better in the Premier League and at a club like Villa it was sharper and cleaner.  We used to spend an extra 30 to 45 minutes on distribution.”

Well, all that muscle memory has come in very handy recently. The 39-year-old veteran recorded his first-ever assist in Major League Soccer against New York City a few weeks ago, eleven years after contributing to the third goal for the Midlands club against Manchester City.

To illustrate the ups and downs of split-second decision-making, he also received a red card in the last game after trying to head a ball clear.  It has been a long and winding road in a professional career spanning two decades. When Guzan picked up his first contract at Chivas USA in 2005 he was a rookie thrown in to sink or swim.

The 20-year-old goalkeeper had a baptism of fire to say the least. “The shell-shocked Guzan was pelted with shot after shot and in his first 302 minutes surrendered 11 goals, on counter attacks as well as set pieces,” reported the LA Times rather starkly. There’s a keeper’s life right there. The media isn’t always interested in what happened before the ball came into the box. That’s not good copy. When the gloves go on, it’s independence day out there.

The American custodian admits that it was tough at first. “I went to university for a year and a half and then left school to be drafted in Major League Soccer to be part of Chivas USA, which, in 2005, was the first year of that club. In that first year we weren’t great and I started to doubt myself about whether I was ready. However, individually I had a decent season and by the end I had been called into the US national team.” Sixty-four caps later, here he is.

One of the big differences between the British and American games was the pathway. It was very much the way to go from high school to college and then through to the MLS as opposed to the linear transition in the English leagues that go from academy to the first team squad.

“I think when you look at the academy setup, there is much better coaching in terms of the technical aspects of the game. In America, it’s more about athleticism. However, youth soccer in this country has changed dramatically from when I was a part of it. In terms of the coaches that are coming over here, they are working with players at a much younger age.”

It’s certainly true that the United States produces more elite goalkeepers than any other position. One only has to think about the long and storied careers of Tim Howard and Brad Friedel as well as the success of Matt Turner and Zack Steffen. Many predecessors like Kasey Keller paved the way to show the quality of Stateside keeping.

There is something in the American way that produces a higher skill set between the sticks. “Yeah, I played baseball as a kid growing up and I was fairly decent at that. I wasn’t great at basketball but was good on the defensive side. Scoring wasn’t my thing! I certainly think the hand-eye coordination from baseball, from basketball, the footwork and other parts that are very much part of those sports certainly helped when it came to playing goalkeeper.”

He may be well into his dotage, but the former South Carolina sophomore came to the goalkeeping party quite late in his teenage years. After being the willing accomplice to his two older brothers calling the shots in their own practice, Guzan started to find the fun in throwing himself around to keep the ball out of the net.

When the technical proficiency to score isn’t there, what better way to make the transition from outfield to stopper. So often goalkeepers have seen the other side of the tracks before making the permanent move to where everything stops. Or starts.

Guzan spent four seasons with Chivas, a subsidiary of Mexican club CD Guadalajara, and was named MLS goalkeeper of the year in 2007. The Spanish-speaking fan base eventually gave him the affectionate moniker El Gusano or “The Worm.” Guzan became the worm that turned in 2008 when he left for Villa. He had been screened by a number of European clubs by then.

At the time, USA coach Bob Bradley had already spoken up for his main man: “He got thrown into a difficult situation his first year with Chivas. As a young goalkeeper that’s hard. I would say that not all young goalkeepers would have survived that year. Brad’s got a competitive side to him. He’s got a real mentality that holds up under pressure.”

Guzan concurs with this take: “I never shied away from the criticism, I never shied away from the intensity, the yelling, the screaming, things like that. It was similar at Villa in that my goalie coach was adamant about making me better, whether that was in the gym, on the field, or out at training for 45 minutes to an hour well before Brad (Friedel).

Guzan was signed in the same season as former Columbus Crew stopper Friedel. Aside from that bit of local competition there was the challenge of taking on another: getting used to the unique dressing room culture.

“I think when you go over there you get used to the English banter in the locker room as we say in the States. It can be pretty harsh, you know, pretty intense for a young American. Nobody knows me from Joe Schmo down the street. I am getting crushed for the typical American phrases.” Friedel had already been there, done that and got the badge of honour as a 37-year-old veteran.

The former USA International had to wait over three years for an extended run in Villa’s team after an injury to Shay Given. It was only in the 2012-13 season when he fully established himself as the number one ahead of the Irish international, receiving the club’s Player of the Year award in the process. At the time, the then manager Paul Lambert publicly stated that Guzan had been “fantastic” on and off the pitch. It was the beginning of a new road, finally getting continuity.

“You’re trying to find your feet and settle in, and on top of that you’ve moved halfway across the world to a new country, and you’re trying to find yourself off the field as much as you are on the field. Making the jump to England, it was massive in terms of the thought process, individual quality, and the level of play was so much higher.”

It could have all been so different when the keeper’s initial contract was up in 2012 and Lambert became manager. The former Borussia Dortmund player was open to giving all players a fresh balance sheet.

“All I wanted was a fair opportunity. I wasn’t playing. I wasn’t in the team. And he’s like, well, you know, of course, everyone’s going to start fresh. It’s easy to say that over the phone, and this was going to be a huge move in my career. I told him I needed to have this conversation face to face and so that Monday night, I booked a ticket, a flight from the States to England, landed Tuesday morning and drove off to Birmingham."

Guzan had made his international debut as a raw 22-year-old but got his best run in the side almost a decade later, winning the Golden Glove at the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. That idea of always learning on the job has stayed with him. A goalkeeper has a community of knowledge like no other, a respect and reputation for a role that transcends tribalism. Shared knowledge is an open secret and travels across continents.

“I got onto a flight with Petr Cech and we just started talking about goalkeeping being a constant learning process. I’ve always been able to take something from somebody and incorporate that into my game. Brad was huge on yoga, stretching and flexibility and that was something that certainly off the field helped me prolong my career.”

There was always the pressure of time when convening for the national team as it was based on short camps. It needed maximum team integration and displacement of egos. “It is the mental motivation of wanting to succeed both as a team and as an individual and to be there for your teammates. You feel that camaraderie and when you hear from players who ultimately retire, a lot of them have told me you’ll never recreate that locker room bond.”

Guzan has come full circle back to Atlanta in 2017 and recently recorded his 79th clean sheet in a League that has changed much since its inception three decades ago. In his latest game, Hugo Lloris was playing for LAFC at the other end and ex-Dortmund alumni Roman Burki had a great breakout season for St Louis in 2023.

“It was always something that I wanted to do in terms of coming back to Major League Soccer. Being away for nine years to then return and see its growth is quite the thing. It couldn’t have been more different in terms of how things were run and that tallies with the success of the club. To be a part of that from the beginning is fantastic.”

As he approaches his fortieth birthday, the Chicago-born player has shown resilience and dedication to follow his field of dreams. The map of a goalkeeping journey can often be as much in personal development as miles covered. That satisfaction can transcend on the field achievements.

 “I’d say it’s a sense of gratefulness. There’s not many people in any profession that have a goal as a kid and they not only reach their goal, but they get to live it out.”

A goal? He likes to keep them out. Just the way it should be.

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