Atlanta United’s Gonzalo Pineda: ‘We’re not that far away’

Atlanta United's Giorgos Giakoumakis dribbles against the Columbus Crew Sunday in Game 3 of their MLS playoff series.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Atlanta United

Credit: Photo courtesy of Atlanta United

Atlanta United's Giorgos Giakoumakis dribbles against the Columbus Crew Sunday in Game 3 of their MLS playoff series.

Sitting in an empty locker room, his team’s season ended with a 4-2 loss to Columbus in Game 3 of their playoff series, manager Gonzalo Pineda expressed optimism that Atlanta United next season should be much better.

In one way, he was correct. The offense was one of the best in MLS, scoring the second-most goals (66).

But it was the defense that was in need to be fixed. Pineda recognized that, acutely aware his team gave up eight goals in three playoff matches, on top of the 53 allowed during the regular season. That was the most given up by any of the 18 teams that qualified for the playoffs.

“Leaking goals, I think, has been our Achilles heel the whole season,” he said. “And one thing, definitely we have to take a look at how we can do better and solidify that.”

It was a bizarre problem.

At season’s end, the team’s back five had each appeared for the national teams. Three of the players, Miles Robinson, Luis Abram and Brad Guzan, have appeared more than 20 times for their nation. But as a team, Atlanta United had a difficult time doing what Pineda trained them to do when they didn’t have the ball. Columbus’ first three goals in Game 3 were preventable. Two were the result of Atlanta United turnovers. The other was helped by no player moving to pressure the shooter.

“We need to do better in the defensive phase,” Pineda said. “If we are able to maintain that level of attacking actions and goal production, but solidifying a little bit more our backline and our defensive structure as a whole, not just the defenders, I think we can do better.”

Guzan, the team captain, said the team had difficulties managing success as a whole, as well as moments in the games.

While the team did put together a six-game unbeaten streak, it never could string together more than two wins. It had a four-game losing streak that started with an embarrassing 2-1 loss to Memphis in the U.S. Open Cup in which it allowed a franchise-worst 30 shots.

“It almost felt that, you know, after a good performance, we were raring to go,” he said. “And then we had a bit of a speed bump and take the wind out of our sails, and we’d have to regroup and we go again, and we’d have a good performance, and then, you know, we’d have another setback or whatnot.”

The team added valuable pieces in the summer window with the acquisitions of Tristan Muyumba, Saba Lobjanidze and Xande Silva, which allowed Pineda to use Caleb Wiley and Brooks Lennon in their natural positions as fullbacks. It went 4-2-4 in its last 10 games. It looks like a good record, but the team went 0-1-2 in its last three games, costing itself a chance to have home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Guzan said there were moments in matches that the team failed to handle well. In Game 1 of the playoffs against Columbus, Atlanta United almost got to halftime without giving up a goal ... until it did. It gave up another six minutes into the second half.

“There’s a difference between always insisting on on one way, and then there’s also the ability to say, ‘OK, at this moment of the game, can we look to do something else and change things up and have a little bit of a different tempo to us?’” Guzan said. “How do you get that? I’m not entirely sure. And that’s something that, you know, as a group will, will certainly reflect on.”

After giving up three goals in the first half of Game 3, Atlanta United scored just before halftime. Striker Giorgos Giakoumakis told his teammates at halftime that the one thing they couldn’t do was give up a goal in the opening minutes of the second half. They gave up a goal two minutes after the game restarted.

“Everyone could see like we when we are solid defensively, we could beat anyone,” Giakoumakis said. “When we’re not, we can lose to anyone. And that’s something in football in general. I think if you don’t defend in a solid way, and try to avoid conceding, like easy goals ... you cannot expect to win something at a major level.”

It is natural to wonder, though, if the team couldn’t execute defensively this season, its second full one under Pineda, and it’s going to be without Robinson, whose contract has expired, Wiley, who may be a transfer target for clubs in Europe, and Guzan, who hasn’t committed to returning next season, why should there be an expectation for improvement next season.

Pineda said his experience in MLS is that there always is change between seasons. Atlanta United experienced that between 2022 and ‘23, and again during ‘23. It traded away starting fullback Andrew Gutman and sent starting defensive midfielder Franco Ibarra on loan. JuanJo Purata, who was starting beside Robinson, was replaced by Abram in July.

Pineda said when he joined Seattle as an assistant coach in 2017, the team that defeated Toronto for the 2016 MLS Cup saw more than a dozen roster changes during the offseason. It finished as runner-up in 2017, made the playoffs again in 2018 and won the MLS Cup in 2019.

Pineda said next season’s success will depend upon how he and the players adapt to whatever changes happen. He said it’s not like the team is starting over. There is a foundation of principles of play. The defensive principles and collective execution must improve to match the results of the attacking level.

“I don’t think we’re that far away,” he said.

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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule

Feb. 25 Atlanta United 2, San Jose Earthquakes 1

March 4 Atlanta United 1, Toronto FC 1

March 11 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte FC 0

March 18 Atlanta United 5, Portland 1

March 25 Columbus 6, Atlanta United 1

April 1 Atlanta United 1, New York Red Bulls 0

April 8 Atlanta United 1, New York City FC 1

April 15 Atlanta United 2, Toronto FC 2

April 23 Atlanta United 2, Chicago 1

April 29 Nashville SC 3, Atlanta United 1

May 6 Inter Miami CF 2, Atlanta United 1

May 13 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 1

May 17 Atlanta United 4, Colorado 0

May 20 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 3

May 27 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1

May 31 Atlanta United 3, New England 3

June 7 Atlanta United 0, LAFC 0

June 10 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 1

June 21 Atlanta United 2, New York City 2

June 24 New York Red Bulls 4, Atlanta United 0

July 2 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 0

July 8 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0

July 12 New England 2, Atlanta United 1

July 15 Orlando City 2, Atlanta United 1

July 25 Miami 4, Atlanta United 0 in Leagues Cup

July 29 Cruz Azul 1 (5), Atlanta United (4) 1 in Leagues Cup

Aug. 20 Atlanta United 2, Seattle 0

Aug. 26 Atlanta United 4, Nashville 0

Aug. 30 Cincinnati 2, Atlanta United 1

Sept. 2 Atlanta United 2, FC Dallas 2

Sept. 16 Atlanta United 5, Inter Miami 2

Sept. 20 Atlanta United 1, D.C. United 1

Sept. 23 Atlanta United 4, Montreal 1

Oct. 4 Philadelphia 3, Atlanta United 2

Oct. 7 Atlanta United 1, Columbus 1

Oct. 21 Atlanta United 2, Cincinnati 2

Nov. 1 Columbus 2, Atlanta United 0

Nov. 7 Atlanta United 4, Columbus 2

Nov. 12 Columbus 4, Atlanta United 2