Everyone has been talking about Tito Villalba and his sensational strike in the 86th minute of a 1-0 Atlanta United win over Orlando City SC on Friday. As well they should, since it was certainly one of the more terrific goals scored this season.
With that being said, it wouldn’t have mattered without a perfect performance by Brad Guzan in goal for his first MLS match since 2008 with now-defunct Chivas USA. The 32-year-old and U.S. national team backup made five saves for Atlanta en route to a clean sheet, the 25th of his career.
None of the five stops were more notable than the two point-blank ones made on Jonathan Spector in each half. In the 39th minute, Carlos Rivas’ free kick sailed in the box and found the head of Spector, who flicked it on net but was denied by a diving Guzan. Spector saw another chance in the second half that was more straightforward for Guzan.
“The first one I was just able to get a hand to it. The one in the second half was a bit more comfortable,” Guzan said afterwards. “(But) in every game, you look at how you get better. In those moments, we’ll go back look at the tape. We probably weren’t the best defending those set pieces, and that’s something we’ve got to get better at.”
Guzan hasn’t been with the team long, but seems to have acclimated himself nicely - referring to the team as “we” after the match.
“I’ve been coming here for a few months now. To have the opportunity to go on the pitch and play with these guys in a real game - it’s easy to say ‘we’ now.”
So is Atlanta/Orlando considered a rivalry?
“I think there are a few people, including their manager (Jason Kreis), that have said that rivalries, you can’t just label them. They have to be formed,” he said. “With us both being in the Southeast and so close to each other, I think that’s going to come naturally.”
It’s obviously a much different MLS than the one Guzan left for the Premier League in 2008. He had been keeping close tabs on the league from the U.K. and expressed how impressed he has been with its growth and the increased level of support it’s received over the past decade.
“I’ve watched the league from afar,” he explained. “The support around the world’s been great. The league’s gotten bigger, it’s gotten better. So now to be back in it is exciting. For us being an expansion team and to be able to put together the performances and ultimately getting the results that we are, it’s something pretty special.”
Guzan said that there was some comfort level when it came to the team’s defense.
“I’ve played with Parky (Michael Parkhurst) before. I’ve played with Greg (Garza) before. I spoke to Anton (Walkes) a little bit before the game. Obviously Leandro (Gonzalez Pirez), his English is really good so he understands. All these guys, not just our back line, they’re good with their brain, they’re good with their ideas. They understand the game. When you have guys that put that together with the quality that we have at their feet, then it’s easy.”
We’ll see if Guzan - and his team - can capitalize on Friday’s performance as Atlanta United host Orlando City this weekend. But early returns, at least after one game, look pretty good.