Atlanta United has no excuses in 2024 MLS season

Atlanta United manager Gonzalo Pineda watches action during training camp at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. (Jason Getz /



Atlanta United manager Gonzalo Pineda watches action during training camp at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. (Jason Getz /

Atlanta United has no excuses.

It has tangible facts. Its roster is healthy. It has three proven Designated Players. It has players throughout its starting 11 and off the bench who have played for their national teams. It knows what it didn’t do well last year and has worked to improve through transfers and tactics. Heck, it doesn’t even have visa issues to navigate.

It has intangible motivators. Its owner wants more hardware. Its captain and its manager may be facing their final seasons because each are in the final guaranteed year of their contracts.

It’s time to win another trophy.

Manager Gonzalo Pineda and the team’s vets feel this group is capable. Pineda sees it in the attentiveness in meetings and the applications in training and a moment in a preseason match. It’s not uncommon in sports for a team to talk about how things seem better in a preseason compared with last season. But in hearing from the players and Pineda, it does seem like the team at least truly feels like this season there will be improvements in the areas that have been weak.

“I feel something special about this group of players is early stages, three, four weeks in the preseason, but you can see a little bit different vibe, more championship behaviors, how we call it, that, yes, we talk about it, but you see immediately the players applying on a daily basis,” Pineda said.

Getting back to the excuses ... winning obviously solves everything: the search for another trophy, Pineda’s contract situation, cementing legacies.

Attentiveness and, grit, or vibe as Pineda described it, has been one of the things, and it’s fair to use it as an excuse, preventing the team from more success the past few seasons, under managers further down the timeline than Pineda.

The team has had the reputation of being able to “soccer” with any opponent. It scored the most-goals (66) in the league last season. It hasn’t had a reputation of being able to play with the same mental and physical toughness as some of its opponents.

Dax McCarty, who signed as a free agent during the offseason, said his former team, Nashville, had to play chippily. It was part of its DNA because it didn’t have the same talent as some of its opponents. But they also knew that that tactic would benefit against Atlanta United. It may be why the team’s record against teams that like to press or to push physically, teams like Nashville, Philadelphia, the Red Bulls and Columbus, is less than .500.

“The team could have used a tiny bit more experience, in those moments, right, a little bit more experience, a little bit more know-how, a little bit more willing to roll the sleeves up and grind out a result, even if it’s not a win, right?” he said. “Even those points on the road where you you secure a draw. I mean, nobody wants to tie a game, but those are valuable in the long marathon that the season is and they do add up.”

That desire to lower the bar, roll up the sleeves and fight back may be changing. Many of the team’s preseason friendlies were scrappier than expected. None more so than its second against Memphis in Athens. Fed up with the pushing and hard tackles, Giorgos Giakoumakis, got up off the ground after an incident in the first half and pushed a Memphis player. He followed that by getting into the player’s face. It was something that Atlanta United players typically haven’t done. It was reminiscent of Jeff Larentowicz using one arm to push a Red Bulls player to the ground in 2019.

McCarty loved seeing Giakoumakis’ response.

“When there’s something that goes against the team, you have a tendency to maybe go into a shell,” he said. “I love seeing guys who want to roll their sleeves up and do the dirty work and the hard work that it takes to win and be successful in MLS because if you can balance those two out, playing the good soccer, the tactically elite soccer that I feel like we’re going to be able to play, you’re going to be a really difficult team to beat.”

Pineda loved it, too. He said he’s never told his players to kick or bully opponents, but he has told them that it’s OK to defend teammates.

McCarty also wants to see more.

“I think one thing that I’m still trying to get a pulse on is just how close we’re going to be off the fields because that stuff is incredibly important,” he said. “I’m willing to fight for you, you’re willing to fight for me, I’ve got your back no matter what. And that stuff, you build that stuff little by little on the field, but you actually build that more so off the field. And that is, I think, the most important aspect of building a love and a trust in a respect and a camaraderie amongst the group that can take you to the next level.”

Part of defending teammates is noticing those dangerous moments where a response is necessary. Recognizing moments has been another issue, or excuse, keeping this team from fulfilling its potential. It had one of the worst defenses in MLS last season. It consistently would give up goals because of a tendency to lose focus, or not recognize dangerous situations. In total, the team gave up 53 goals, third-most in the East and the most among the 18 teams that made the playoffs.

Brad Guzan, the team’s captain, said he feels that ability has improved. Part of the betterment has happened because of the team’s recruiting strategy. Instead of signing young players with unknown but possibly high potential, which was the course under previous president Darren Eales, the team has switched under current president Garth Lagerwey to pursuing lower-priced but proven veterans who are more capable of winning now rather than possibly winning later.

Since the 2023 summer window, the team has signed players who have combined for more than 1,500 appearances. That group includes McCarty, Xande Silva, Saba Lobjanidze, Tristan Muyumba, Stian Gregersen, Bartosz Slisz, Jamal Thiare, Josh Cohen and Derrick Williams. With that experience comes an ability to recognize situations. to communicate what is happening, and the intuition to successfully react with soccer skills or with some brawling.

Guzan said that mix of MLS veterans with those from Europe and younger players is of vital importance in MLS because the margins of success between teams is so small, every little thing can add up to increase the probability of winning.

Guzan also place a value on many of the players on the team having an ability to speak English, to an extent. It helps with the communication on the field and the bonding off the field.

“We understand that, that soccer, football is a worldwide game,” he said. “And whether it’s Spanish or French, or English, whatever it may be, we’re all able to communicate to a certain extent. And so I think that is a very good start. And then on top of it, you know, you you’ve got guys that have been here a couple years, you’ve got guys who have been here, six months, eight months, you’ve got guys that obviously been here a couple of weeks. There are different stages. But there are guys that are opening up more. And with that openness, comes togetherness.”

Knocking out the excuses: Signings have been made to improve the defense, and the experience the signees bring should be able to help the team snuff out situations that have cost it points, the team is showing a togetherness and toughness it may have lacked.

Lastly, there’s its manager’s contract situation. There’s a scene in the movie “Moneyball,” when Oakland Athletics manager Art Howe, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, tells general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, that he can’t manage the team with only one year remaining on his contract. Beane disagrees. Pineda is in that camp. He denies feeling pressure related to his future.

Sitting in a coffee shop in St. Petersburg, Florida, he explains that he was raised by his father, a painter who still works and sells his work in Mexico, and his mother, who worked hard to clean out the corruption in the department of a university where she worked, to be committed to growth in everything he did, every day.

So, whether his contract is one years or four years, whether Pineda was coaching in the Premier League or the fourth division somewhere else in the world, Pineda said his contract isn’t something that concerns him.

“Whether your school, whether it’s football, whether it is whatever job you do, you focus to do it the best you can,” he said. “And that’s how I grew up trying to do that.”

Brad Guzan and Dax McCarty, the oldest players on the team’s roster, have played for a lot of different managers and in a lot of different circumstances. McCarty said he wasn’t even aware of Pineda’s contract status until told at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, with the team already deep into its preseason.

The teachings of Pineda’s parents are evident in how he manages, they said.

“Gonzalo, he seems to come to work every day with the same mindset and the same mentality,” McCarty said. “And that’s to push us to be better versions of ourselves, and to care deeply about winning, because that’s what it’s all about.”

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 at Columbus, 2 p.m.

March 9 vs. New England, 7:30 p.m.

March 17 vs. Orlando, 7 p.m., FS1

March 23 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

March 31 vs. Chicago, 3:30 p.m., Fox

April 6 at NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

April 14 vs. Philadelphia, 2:30 p.m., Fox

April 20 vs. Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

April 27 at Chicago, 8:30 p.m.

May 4 vs. Minnesota, 7:30 p.m.

May 11 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

May 15 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

May 18 at Nashville, 1:30 p.m.

May 25 vs. LAFC, 7:30 p.m.

May 29 at Miami, 7:30 p.m.

June 2 vs Charlotte, 4:30 p.m., Fox

June 15 vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m.

June 19 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 22 at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m.

June 29 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

July 3 at New England, 7:30 p.m.

July 6 at Real Salt Lake, 9:30 p.m.

July 13 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 17 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

July 20 vs. Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 31 at Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Nashville, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 18 vs. Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 2 vs. Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Orlando, 6 p.m.