Players believe Rob Valentino’s communication skills will help Atlanta United

Atlanta United interim manager Rob Valentino celebrates with goalkeeper Brad Guzan (1) 3-2 win against Columbus Crew Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, at Field in Columbus, Ohio. (Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Credit: Atlanta United

Credit: Atlanta United

Atlanta United interim manager Rob Valentino celebrates with goalkeeper Brad Guzan (1) 3-2 win against Columbus Crew Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, at Field in Columbus, Ohio. (Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

When Atlanta United’s players were told June 3 that Gonzalo Pineda was fired, captain Brad Guzan’s first phone call was to Rob Valentino, who was promoted from assistant to interim manager.

It was a call made out of practicality. Guzan felt sympathy for Pineda and his family. But in a results-driven business, Guzan knew that there wasn’t a lot of time to dwell. Eighteen league matches remain, plus the U.S. Open Cup and Leagues Cup. It was time to work, again.

“How do we move forward?” Guzan said. “We can’t look back. Whether it be small steps, big steps, we’ve got to get this thing going again.”

That connection between Guzan and Valentino has been forged over several years. Guzan is the longest-tenured player at the club, signed before the 2017 season. Valentino has been with the club since 2018 and is in the first week of his second stint as an interim. The first came between the firing of Gabriel Heinze and the hiring of Pineda.

Valentino has worked hard to cultivate deep relationships with the players, which is why Guzan may have felt the freedom to make that first call.

“I think he’s respected by each and every player in the organization,” fullback Brooks Lennon said. “He’s going to be upfront and honest with you. And that’s all you can ask for, you know, as a player. He knows every single player and has a personal relationship with them. And I think he can build on on that.”

That ability and desire to communicate isn’t only with the players.

Under Pineda, before the training sessions that were four days out from a match, he would walk across the training pitch and come talk to gathered reporters. The conversations were always off-the-record but he could be asked anything about the previous match, tactics, what was that day’s training plan, his preferred coffee, anything.

It was an unusual thing for the manager of a pro sports team to do, but it helped cultivate relationships and provide some degree of transparency.

On Tuesday, four days from Saturday’s match against Houston at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Valentino approached one reporter before training and said that he would come over and talk as soon as more reporters arrived. Once more arrive, Valentino jogged over and explained what would happen in the day’s session, what he hoped to achieve with the drills in a “hello again, it’s been a while,” moment.

“His ability to communicate with us, whether it’s Americans, or the foreign guys, different languages, he puts himself out there in terms of making it a point to connect with guys on a deeper level than just football, just soccer,” Guzan said. “I think by doing that, he not takes some massive strides forward with individuals.”

Guzan and Lennon were on the team in 2021 when Valentino’s team was 4-2-2 in his first period in charge. His communication skills have stayed top-notch. The players said they have seen him develop into a more experienced leader. They said he has the respect of the players and everyone throughout the organization because of the relationships he tries to develop.

As part of that growth, Valentino spoke last week about thinking about more ways to create a transition moments in matches compared with his first time leading the club. Some of Tuesday’s sessions were focused on creating and succeeding in those situations, Lennon said. Defensively, there has been a focus on collective defense in an attempt to get more shutouts because a clean sheet will result in at least one point, and Atlanta United needs points. The first three sessions have challenged the players.

Valentino’s challenge is complicated. Atlanta United is a team that statistically is better than its results, which put it in 13th place in the East. Valentino will have to deal with players coming and going for the Euros, Copa America and the Olympics. As was the case under Pineda, there likely will be injuries because the team has been riddled with them this season and to expect them to stop would be foolish.

The players believe Valentino is ready.

“One thing I admire about Rob is he’s always trying to continuously improve himself,” Lennon said. “He’s the first one to raise his hand when something goes wrong, which I respect because like I said, it’s in tough moments in a season, you got to look at yourself in the mirror and say, am I giving everything that I possibly have? Rob always does that. He’s always giving everything he can. He puts in the work every single day.”

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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.