“Thrown into the deep end” is defined as forcing someone to do something very complex and/or unfamiliar, especially suddenly without guidance, assistance, or preparation. That is exactly what happened to the Atlanta United goalkeeper Paul Christensen. The recently turned 22-year-old rookie was drafted 70th in the 2018 Major League Soccer (MLS) SuperDraft. He signed a deal with the Five Stripes United Soccer League (USL) affiliate, ATL UTD 2. Before that, the 6’1” goalie started all 72 games at Portland, where he went to college. He was also a part of the Seattle Sounders Academy while he was there. He is definitely a great player. However, how would he survive in the deep end?
Atlanta was playing their home match against Sporting Kansas City. It was a battle of the best in the East verse the West. Many experts feel that this was a preview of the MLS Cup Finals. Atlanta was undefeated on the season at home and was gaining momentum. They needed a solid showing in the match to prove that last year’s inauguration season wasn’t a fluke. Coach Gerardo Martino changed the team’s formation to a 4-3-2-1. He wanted to attack Kansas City and put pressure on them. This proved to be a genius move to begin the game. Six minutes into the match, Josef Martinez scored a goal. But wait, there was a video review showing that he was offside. The goal was overturned and it remained 0-0. Talk about a game changer.
In the 34th minute, the game changed again. Kansas City’s Khiry Shelton was about to take a shot on goalkeeper Brad Guzan. That’s when Guzan slid into Shelton, taking him to the ground. This is a foul, one that earned him a red card. A red card means you are automatically out of the game and the next one. This also led to Atlanta being down one man in Hector Villalba. If there was a silver lining, the red card happened outside the box, so it didn’t result in a penalty kick. Enter in Christensen to save the day. The reason Christensen was on the team was due to injuries from backup goalkeepers Alec Kann and Mitch Hildebrandt. He signed a short–term contract through the MLS “extreme hardship” rule, which allows MLS teams to sign players from their USL affiliates. You can sign a player to a maximum of four short-term contracts each season, a maximum of 16 days.
Christensen held his own until halftime, keeping the score 0-0. Even at the beginning of the second half, he played extremely well. He had a huge save 53 minutes into the match. It seemed like all would not be lost. It wasn’t until midway through the 2nd half, when Daniel Salloi scored the first goal of the game. Kansas City was now up 1-0. Atlanta tried desperately to score but to no avail. In the last few minutes of the match, Gerso Fernandes scored, giving Kansas City a 2-0 lead. That would be the final score, giving Atlanta their first home lost this season.
When asked about Christensen’s performance, coach Martino said, “It was very difficult, but he played very well. Furthermore, he had a great save on a one-on-one chance when the game was still tied 0-0.” Guzan said, “I told him to enjoy the moment. We’ve all been there. We’ve all made our debuts at some point in our careers. For him, it was a proud moment to make his professional debut with the first team. I told him to enjoy the moment and take it all in.” Midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said, “I thought he did really well. You can see in the second half he was called upon to make a few saves. As soon as he gets on the field, I think his distribution is good. I can hear him communicating as well. He didn’t shy away from the occasion.” Defender Michael Parkhurst said, “It’s a tough spot for him, you know, just being called up for a few games, not thinking he’s going to play. To step in, down a man, I thought he did really well. He communicated well. He made that big save for us early in the second half. So, kudos to him for being ready and stepping up in a tough spot.” High praises from his teammates and coach.
When asked about playing in a MLS match and at such a critical stage, Christensen said, “I think it’s just going into the game preparing like I’m going to play, kind-of watching Brad (Guzan) what he does. (Goalkeeper Coach) Aron (Hyde) said right before I went in that it’s just like training. I’ve seen some of the best guys in the league every day, so it’s nothing different, so just being confident in my game and confident in what I can bring to the table. (I’ll) try my best to help the team win the best I can. Guys were just telling me to calm down, play my game, do what I can and try to help the team.”
All things considered, Christensen was definitely up for the challenge. He chose to swim rather than sink. To give up two goals against the best team in the West and with a man down, was great. Apparently Atlanta thought so too, because they gave him another four-day contract.