Darren Eales expectedly optimistic about Atlanta United in 2022

Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda looks on before the match against Cincinnati Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United)

Credit: Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United

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Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda looks on before the match against Cincinnati Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United)

Credit: Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United

Atlanta United’s front office and others played a staff game earlier this week.

Manager Gonzalo Pineda passed the ball to club President Darren Eales. His touch wasn’t as smooth as in his press conferences.

“I don’t know exactly what he said because it was in Spanish, but I could tell by the tone, it wasn’t complimentary,” Eales said. “And that’s what he’s like. He expects it from everybody in the squad, and I think you saw the players respond to that.”

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That level of focus and execution from Pineda, even in something as meaningless as a staff game, ranks among the reasons that Eales is bullish on the team’s prospects for the pending MLS season. It is in the middle of its first week of training camp ahead of its Feb. 27 opener against Sporting KC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Pineda joined Atlanta United during the middle of the season and led the team to 24 points from its final 13 games. That total was tied with New England and Colorado for the most in the league. That direction, combined with a full preseason that, for the first time in three seasons won’t include the Champions League, and a roster that could see 10 of 11 starters return, and healthy Josef Martinez are other reasons for Eales’ optimism.

“So I think that’s going to help as well in terms of his ability to put his stamp on the team,” Eales said.

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Pineda hasn’t been leading the team in its first training sessions because he is in the health and safety protocols. It’s the second time he’s undergone the protocols. The first time delayed his timing in taking over Atlanta United. Assistant Rob Valentino, who was the interim manager between the fired Gabriel Heinze and Pineda and helped steer the team back in a positive direction, has managed the training sessions.

Eales raved about the relationship between Valentino and Pineda, crediting their partnership with saving the season after Heinze led the team to only 13 points from its first 13 games.

Another reason for optimism, according to Eales, is a healthy Martinez.

A striker who suffered a torn ACL that required multiple surgeries in 2020, Martinez scored 12 goals in 24 appearances last season. He didn’t always look 100%.

“We know he’s only going to get better, and you know he’s come back excited and energized,” Eales said.

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Atlanta United’s 2022 MLS schedule

Feb. 27 vs. Sporting KC, 3 p.m., FS1

March 5 at Colorado, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

March 13 vs. Charlotte, 4:30 p.m., FS1

March 19 vs. Montreal, 4 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

April 2 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

April 9 at Charlotte, 3 p.m., ESPN

April 16 vs. Cincinnati, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

April 24 at Miami, 1 p.m., ESPN

April 30 at Montreal, 4 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

May 7 vs. Chicago, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

May 15 vs. New England, 2 p.m., ESPN

May 21 at Nashville, 7:30 p.m. FOX

May 28 vs. Columbus Crew, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

June 19 vs Miami, 4 p.m., ESPN2

June 25 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

June 30 at New York Red Bulls, 8 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

July 3 at NYCFC, 5 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

July 9 vs. Austin, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

July 13 vs. Real Salt Lake, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

July 17 vs. Orlando, 3 p.m., ABC

July 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 9:30 p.m., FS1

July 30 at Chicago, 5 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

August 6 vs. Seattle, 3 p.m., ABC

August 13 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m. BSSO/BSSE

August 17 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

August 21 at Columbus, 6 p.m., FS1

August 28 vs. D.C. United, 4 p.m., UNIV

August 31 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 4 at Portland, 5:30 p.m., FOX

Sept. 10 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept. 14 at Orlando, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept 17 vs. Philadelphia, 3:30 p.m., UniMas

Oct. 1 at New England, 1 p.m., UniMas

Oct. 9 vs. NYCFC, TBD, BSSO/BSSE