Rob Valentino credits players and staff for Atlanta United’s streak

Rob Valentino took over Atlanta United when it was in an eight-game winless streak. After Saturday’s 2-1 victory at D.C. United the team has won four consecutive games for the first time in two years.

Now, Valentino will resume his job as an assistant coach with Gonzalo Pineda taking over the team on Tuesday.

The process of turning around Atlanta United isn’t close to complete, Valentino said. The team is tied with D.C. United in points for the seventh and final playoff spot but the Five Stripes are in eighth because of tiebreakers. The team will next play Aug. 28 when it hosts Nashville at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“We’re looking at a realistic position that we’re in, we need to be better, we need to be higher up and say that we need to keep pushing,” he said. “So it’s a long way to go and a lot of work to go. But we’re we’re happy for the moment that we have, we’ll make sure that we celebrate the moment that we have.”

But how did Valentino, who has never been a manager, do it? How did he take a team that looked disjointed and unhappy and turn it into arguably the hottest team in MLS? And how can Pineda keep it going?

There wasn’t a “magic switch,” according to goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who has been in the net during the winning streak. It seems that Valentino was able to two things that Gabriel Heinze, whose termination provided the opportunity, couldn’t: Give the team confidence by putting them in an attacking system that took advantage of their talents.

“I think there’s a difference is two different systems and two coaches that had different thoughts on the way they look at the game,” said Marcelino Moreno, who scored the game-winner against D.C. United. “For instance, you have got Gabriel, that was a little more about possession a little bit more defensive and you have Rob, that his opinion is just going to attack and score.”

Moreno mentioned several times during Saturday’s post-game press conference that Valentino has given him the freedom to attack and find teammates Ezequiel Barco and Josef Martinez, who scored the first goal against D.C. United because of a pass from Moreno.

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Guzan said it’s more than just freedom on the field. It’s more of a mental freedom.

“I think he gave a lot of belief to guys to go in and I don’t want to say play freely, but play freely within the team and how we wanted to play as a group,” he said. “And so you started to see guys express themselves, you started seeing guys show their ability, individually and show the quality and what they can bring to the team. And when you have that quality within the group, and you have an idea of what you’re trying to do, as 11 guys on the field, and then that little bit of quality is able to shine through more times than not good things are gonna happen.”

It’s clear that it worked for Barco, Moreno and Martinez. Moreno has two goals and an assist during the streak to bring his season totals to seven and three. Martinez has three goals to bring his season total to six. Barco has three goals and an assist to bring his totals to four and three.

But it’s not just the high-priced attacking players who thrived under Valentino.

George Campbell, who has played less than 300 minutes this season, came off the bench because of a possible injury to Alan Franco on Saturday and put in a sold shift in the middle of Atlanta United’s back line. It’s the second consecutive game he’s come off the bench and played well. Amar Sejdic, who was touch-and-go to even play, came on for 60 minutes and tried to keep D.C. United from over-running Atlanta United in the middle of the pitch. Valentino called both performances important to the result. Erick Torres, ridiculed by many Atlanta United supporters for his lack of goals, has even found a role as a late-game pest to opposing defenses.

“I‘ve seen the pain they’ve gone through, whether it’s individually, whether it’s collectively as a team, and you see the losses mount up,” Valentino said. “And now to see them get some reward is really positive. And I’m excited for this not to be the end of it, that we keep going because it can’t just stop here.”

Pineda met with the team for the first time face-to-face on Friday in Washington, D.C. The team will take the next two days off and resume training on Tuesday. It will be Pineda’s first session in charge.

Valentino and Pineda have spoken by phone or Zoom a few times since the former Seattle assistant was named manager on Aug. 12.

Valentino, as he has said many times, said he’s not ready to try to turn this eight games into a head coaching job somewhere. He said he has a lot to learn and is looking forward to learning from Pineda.

“You know, he was extremely successful, successful club in Seattle,” he said. “And, you know, I think he was a huge part of that. So I’m looking forward to learning from him and growing in my own coaching. And I think we hopefully will have a good balance. You know, I think he’s been very open. And, you know, it’s a, I’m walking them in with open arms. So I’m looking forward to having a relationship.”

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Atlanta United’s 2021 MLS schedule

April 17 Atlanta United 0, Orlando 0

April 24 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 1

May 1 New England 2, Atlanta United 1

May 9 Atlanta United 1, Inter Miami 1,

May 15 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0

May 23 Atlanta United 1, Seattle 1

May 29 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

June 20 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 2

June 23 NYCFC 1, Atlanta United 0

June 27 Atlanta United 0, New York Red Bulls 0

July 3 Chicago 3, Atlanta United 0

July 8 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

July 17 New England 1, Atlanta United 0

July 21 Atlanta United 1, Cincinnati 1

July 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

July 30 Orlando 3, Atlanta United 2

Aug. 4 Atlanta United 2, Montreal 2

Aug. 7 Atlanta United 3, Columbus 2

Aug. 15 Atlanta United 1, LAFC 0

Aug. 18 Atlanta United 1, Toronto

Aug. 21 Atlanta United 2, D.C. United 1

Aug. 28 vs. Nashville, 3:30 p.m., Univision

Sept. 10 vs. Orlando, 7 p.m., FS1

Sept. 15 vs. Cincinnati, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept. 18 vs. D.C. United, 3:30 p.m., Univision

Sept. 25 at Philadelphia,3:30 p.m., Univision

Sept. 29 vs. Inter Miami, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Oct. 2 at Montreal, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Oct. 16 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Oct. 20 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Oct. 27 vs. Inter Miami, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Oct. 30 vs. Toronto, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Nov. 3 at New York Red Bulls, TBD, BSSO/BSSE

Nov. 7 at Cincinnati, 3:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE