Atlanta United attempting to change culture by honoring Anton Walkes

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Be like Anton.

Before Anton Walkes died two weeks ago, Atlanta United manager Gonzalo Pineda already was trying to change the team’s culture to one that sounds simple but was embodied by the former player: Be a good person.

“How we treat others, how we treat people in the community, how we treat the people that work very hard in this facility, to make all of us shine on the field, how we treat people, how we are good teammates, how we are cheering for the team and are just waiting for my chance to be in front of another teammate on the field, all those little details,” Pineda said. “So how you create that is trying to create a system to encourage good behaviors on and off the field.”

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This isn’t a new strategy done merely to try something to change the fortunes of a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in two of the past three seasons. Vice President Carlos Bocanegra has referenced consistently that because of the importance of chemistry, he wants players who get along, who are good in the locker room. Pineda said he knows that Bocanegra does his research when vetting possible new signings, of which this season there are a few.

When Pineda was hired during the summer of 2021, among the reasons for his selection were that he understood that the team wasn’t just about the players, something that previous manager Gabriel Heinze didn’t bother to attempt.

“Of utmost importance is character,” then-President Darren Eales said. “It’s not just on the pitch. It’s off the pitch. It’s about a number of aspects and factors. When we weighed that all up, we were delighted to get Gonzalo.”

Pineda tried to start changing the culture when he arrived that summer with barbecues for everyone at the training pitch, small birthday parties for every player, etc.

The attempts continued last season, but myriad injuries and disappointing results were too much to overcome. Of course, that’s what positive cultures are supposed to help deal with. That the team still had a chance to make the playoffs going into the second-to-last game may be evidence that Pineda’s attempts were working to some degree.

To continue the efforts this preseason, Pineda and the players gather for team breakfasts and team lunches.

And then Walkes was killed in a boating accident in South Florida two weeks ago. As can happen, his death helped create a bigger picture.

“It’s a thing for us and our team to kind of use that as almost fuel for this season, that you never know what can happen in life,” Brooks Lennon said. “And so every day that you step on the pitch, give your all for the crest, for the badge, for this entire organization, and just be a good person off the field. And that’s kind of the culture that Gonzalo has wanted us to start is just be a good person off the field, be a good teammate, work hard for one another on the field.”

The team honored Walkes in its friendly at Chattanooga on Saturday by wearing black armbands with the initials AW written in white.

Pineda became slightly emotional after the game when discussing Walkes’ impact as a person and summed up what he’s hoping to see from his players.

“Anton was a big part of Atlanta United, and you don’t need too much time to fall in love with that kid that was full of passion and love for the game, love for the teammates,” he said. “He always brought fun into the locker room and good vibes. So that’s the best way we can honor Anton Walkes is living by his values and the way he used to put the mood in the locker room, I think is the best way we can honor him.”

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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule

Feb. 25 vs. San Jose Earthquakes, 7:30 p.m.

March 4 vs. Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m.

March 11 at Charlotte FC, noon, Fox

March 18 vs. Portland Timbers, 7:30 p.m.

March 25 at Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.

April 1 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

April 8 at New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.

April 15 at Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m.

April 23 vs. Chicago Fire FC, 4:30 p.m., FS1

April 29 at Nashville SC, 1:30 p.m., Fox

May 6 at Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.

May 13 vs. Charlotte FC, 7:30 p.m.

May 17 vs. Colorado Rapids, 7:30 p.m.

May 20 at Chicago Fire FC, 8:30 p.m.

May 27 at Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m.

May 31 vs. New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m., FS1

June 3 at Los Angeles FC, 10:30 p.m.

June 10 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 21 vs. New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.

June 24 at New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

July 2 vs. Philadelphia Union, 4 p.m., Fox

July 8 at CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 12 at New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m.

July 15 vs. Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m., FS1

Aug. 20 at Seattle Sounders, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 26 vs. Nashville SC, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 30 vs. FC Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 2 at FC Dallas, 8:30 p.m.

Sept. 16 vs. Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 20 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 23 vs. CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 4 at Philadelphia Union, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 7 vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 21 at FC Cincinnati, TBA