Atlanta United’s Rob Valentino believes team is close to great things

Atlanta United interim manager Rob Valentino reacts to a play during their 1-0 loss to the Columbus Crew at Mercedes Benz Stadium on Saturday, July 24, 2021 in Atlanta. JASON GETZ // THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Atlanta United interim manager Rob Valentino reacts to a play during their 1-0 loss to the Columbus Crew at Mercedes Benz Stadium on Saturday, July 24, 2021 in Atlanta. JASON GETZ // THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Rob Valentino believes that if he can help Atlanta United create a flame, it can turn into something bigger and hotter and save the team’s season.

Now, it’s up to Valentino, named interim manager Monday following the firing of Gonzalo Pineda, to figure out how to get that kindling hot. Atlanta United has one win its past 11 MLS matches, hasn’t won any of if its past five home matches and is in 13th place in the East standings, with 16 points from 16 matches. It is three points below ninth and final playoff spot.

Speaking Friday to journalists in his first availability since Pineda’s termination, Valentino wasn’t specific on many things that he will do differently than the managers he has worked with at the club. He did reference trying to create more directness and more transition moments because it seems to give the team and the home crowds energy.

“I think that we feel like we’ve got a really strong squad, and we’re going to try to utilize all those players to the best of their abilities by setting them up to succeed,” he said. “So wherever those positions might be, the players in those spots, putting them out there and letting them feel comfortable and where they’re at and really letting them go.”

The players were given several days off after their 3-2 loss to Charlotte on Sunday. That match was the ninth played in 30 days. Valentino said he hopes that the players return reenergized and the coaching staff will continue the evaluation process. Valentino said he wants the players to feel shared success as well as accountability.

Atlanta United’s metrics show that it should be one of the better teams in MLS. Injuries and an inability to be more clinical in both 18-yard boxes in part contributed to the failures that led to Pineda’s dismissal. When Atlanta United returns it will play three games in eight days, giving it a chance for the players to show they believe in what Valentino is doing and that the season can be saved, or the likelihood that it will miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.

“I think that they need to come back to the enjoyment of the game, and not because of anything that was happening before,” Valentino said. “But when results don’t go your way, and you’ve played so many games in so many days, you’re down, maybe not full confidence. But I think that’s the big piece is really seeing where they’re at as they come out of this break, and in bringing the enjoyment back to every day and in getting some results in the short term.”

As was said by club President Garth Lagerwey, Valentino believes that Pineda’s termination was everyone’s responsibility. Valentino said he eventually wants to be a manager, but he’s not focusing on becoming Atlanta United’s manager. He said he’s focused only on the Houston match coming June 15.

This will be Valentino’s second time as an interim manager at Atlanta United. The first came between Gabriel Heinze and Pineda. Valentino went 4-2-2. Lagerwey said there is no timetable on Atlanta United’s coaching search, implying the team will be Valentino’s for the next 18 league matches, as well as the U.S. Open Cup and Leagues Cup.

Valentino said his evolution from his first stint to this one has included more thoughts on how to create different types of attacks. Under Pineda, who wanted to play a more ball-control, possession style, Atlanta United was most dangerous when counter-attacking.

“It’s piqued my interest and how we can create more of those moments in our favor,” he said. “I’m definitely not married to one way. It’s about getting the best out of the squad that you have.”

As evidence, when Valentino was interim the first time, he started with a 4-3-3 formation that eventually morphed into a 5-3-2, which is when the majority of the wins happened.

Getting the players to execute whatever formation and whatever tactics will be key. Lagerwey said one of the reasons he promoted Valentino was because he thought Valentino will provide a fresh voice to the players. Valentino said his ideas may be similar to the past Atlanta United managers, but perhaps how he delivers that message will be different.

“I really, I love working with, like the human side of things, I really enjoy getting to know the players and the relationship building that’s taken place. ...” Valentino said. “So I’m going to really touch into that part and really try to trigger things that I feel like we can get behind that together. I think that’s a really big piece is ... shared success, shared responsibility, accountability. Ultimately, it goes in on game day, or it goes in on training that we’re all in one boat going together, and we’re going in the same direction. Because I think that’s super important. I feel like we’re really one spark away from letting this thing kind of ignite and really start to engage in a fire.”

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

March 9 Atlanta United 4, New England 1

March 17 Atlanta United 2, Orlando 0

March 23 Toronto 2, Atlanta United 0

March 31 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 0

April 6 Atlanta United 1, NYCFC 1

April 14 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 2

April 20 Cincinnati 2, Atlanta United 1

April 27 Atlanta United 1, Chicago 1

May 4 Minnesota 2, Atlanta United 1

May 7 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte Independence 0 in U.S. Open Cup

May 11 D.C. United 3, Atlanta United 2

May 15 Cincinnati 1, Atlanta United 0

May 18 Atlanta United 1, Nashville 1

May 21 Atlanta United 0 (5), Charleston 0 (4) in U.S. Open Cup

May 25 LAFC 1, Atlanta United 0

May 29 Atlanta United 3, Miami 1

June 2 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 2

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.

July 26 vs. D.C. United in Leagues Cup, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 4 vs. Santos Laguna in Leagues Cup, 4 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.