On Easter Monday, Atlanta United revealed what many of us fear, that team leader Brad Guzan suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon off of the ball during the match on Saturday. As the team reeled from the prospect of losing a centerpiece of the club for the remainder of the season, if not forever, the club turned inward to assess other prospects for filling his giant shoes in the near term.
For the second straight season, Atlanta United is faced with severe depth issues at the goalkeeping position. Last year, Rocco Ríos Novo newly arrived on loan from Lanus stepped up as a short-term injury hardship call-up to log valuable minutes in CONCACAF Champions League action against Alajuelense and on the bench against Orlando City. This year, the club outlook for the club is grimmer as they search for longer-term solutions to fill in for team captain Brad Guzan, and short-term options to fill out a competent depth chart.
Our first look at the club’s immediate plans was witnessed at the practice field by our very own Joe Patrick.
The other GK is Elijah Buford, an Academy player who is here to make up numbers.— Joe Patrick (@japatrick200) April 18, 2022
With the club’s original option for the #3 goalkeeper Dylan Castanheira going down in training just one week before also with a ruptured Achilles tendon, the club now has only two goalkeepers on the senior roster. Veteran Bobby Shuttleworth is the de facto starter at this point with newly-signed collegiate Homegrown Player Justin Garces getting an earlier-than-expected promotion from Atlanta United 2 to serve as the back-up for the senior side.
Justin Garces has always been thrown into the fire when it comes to his development. The talented young keeper became an immediate starter in Atlanta United’s academy while also logging minutes in Atlanta United 2’s inaugural campaign. Now back after four grueling years as UCLA’s starter, Garces barely had a chance to get a cup of coffee before being called on by the senior side. He brings loads of experience in high-pressure situations to his promotion so he likely relishes this opportunity. He’s a tough player, selfless in how he throws his body in front of the ball, and growing in confidence when in possession. With a competent defense in front of him, he can keep the ball out of the net, but he is still learning the mental side of the game as far as organizing his defenders. He will need his veterans to step up if called upon in an upcoming fixture. He is as good, if not better than the previous 3rd string keepers we’ve had over the club’s history but fans should recognize that he is still developing. These next few weeks could be a great test of his progress.
Next on the depth chart is Vicente Reyes. The 18-year-old Chilean youth international signed his first professional contract this past offseason with Atlanta United 2 to be the consistent anchor behind what was likely a revolving door of first-team goalkeepers getting vital minutes for this exact situation. With Castanheira out for the season and Garces getting an early look at Major League Soccer, Reyes will be the starter for the foreseeable future. He’s tall and lanky at over 6’4” (1.93 meters) and has developed a lot of confidence both as a shot-stopper and as a ball-playing keeper in possession. If the club experiences another hardship at the position, Reyes is the club’s last good option for temporary promotion other than outside help.
Media in attendance soon noticed a third goalkeeper on the field and after a little bit of digging were introduced to the Academy’s U-19 starting goalkeeper Elijah Buford. This is likely the first time most of the Atlanta United fan base has had the pleasure of meeting Buford.
Buford joined Noah Cobb as the second player born in 2005 to train with the first team in any major capacity. He has been with the club since he was a U-14 prospect and quickly rose through the system, and supplanted older keepers on his way. Most fans who know him remember him as the goalkeeper who made the Rayados player cry during the last Generation Adidas Cup in 2019.
He has a good frame that is still developing. He has decent speed, good hands, and is tracking nicely with the club’s emphasis on goalkeepers being able to play the ball with their feet. He would likely be in line for the next goalkeeper signed to a Homegrown contract if Vicente Reyes wasn’t just ahead of him on the organizational depth chart. This will be an excellent opportunity for Buford to audition for the club in senior training and also as Vicente Reyes’s primary back-up with the 2s.
Nash Skoglund could also see time with the 2s over the next few weeks if Buford is rotated for U-19 fixtures. Skoglund (2006) currently plays for the U-16s and U-17s. He is another fearless keeper with good shot-stopping potential and command of his space. Like the other high-profile keepers in this academy, he has a good feel for distribution and looks to find his forwards over the top for quick counters. The academy is far more aggressive in distribution from their goalkeepers than fans see with the senior team.
Rounding out our top-5 goalkeepers currently available in the Atlanta United system is the young phenom, Jonathan Ransom. Ransom made a name for himself early as the 2019 U-12 Generation Adidas Cup Golden Glove winner. Three years later, Ransom guided his U-15 team to the semi-finals of the Generation Adidas Cup, coming up just short against Italy’s Valencia. Ransom has a commanding presence on the field and great instincts and reactions for his age. His field vision is advancing quickly and his distribution improving, too. Ransom has a lot of momentum right now and could jump a couple of age groups as the club challenges its top performers from the tournament.
So to round up our internal goalkeeper depth chart:
- Justin Garces (2000 - Atlanta United)
- Vicente Reyes (2003 - Atlanta United 2)
- Elijah Buford (2005 - U-19)
- Nash Skoglund (2006 - U-17)
- Jonathan Ransom (2008 - U-15) Generation Adidas U-15 Cup, Golden Glove winner for 2019 U-12 Generation Adidas Tournament
Not included in this list is Dagoberto Romero (2004) who recently signed an amateur contract to play alongside a growing contingent of collegiate Atlanta United prospects for Kennessaw’s Apotheos FC (NPSL). With their first match of the season on May 7, Romero may only be an option for Atlanta United 2 for their April 23 match against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds since the club likely sees Apotheos FC as a competition boost for Romero heading into his freshman season at Georgia Southern University. Romero is a highly talented young goalkeeper who was a regular starter for the U-19s and, last summer, he earned the honor of being named the academy’s player of the month for July.
It is highly unlikely that players below Vicente Reyes on the depth chart will get an opportunity to play above Atlanta United 2 this year, but a continued string of bad luck with first-team health could create golden opportunities for the club’s youngsters to take massive leaps forward in their development timelines. None of these guys will be the answer for the remainder of the season but they can be the answer against Chattanooga, Miami, and possibly even Montreal at the end of the month. The primary transfer window closes on May 4th so a lot will happen before then.