With a coach they trust, Atlanta United embarks on another postseason

Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda makes a point to Luis Araujo during a September match against D.C. United.. JASON GETZ FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda makes a point to Luis Araujo during a September match against D.C. United.. JASON GETZ FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Atlanta United’s Mexican-born manager Gonzalo Pineda has the most surprising kind of challenge: Making himself clear to the team’s sizable and vital Spanish-speaking core.

During training, there’s a U.N. general session going on in his head. Much of what he learned about how to coach came from his days as a player and assistant with the Seattle Sounders and their head man Brian Schmetzer. So, as he says, “When I’m coaching, I’m thinking in English.”

“I learned to be a coach in the U.S. I learned the coaching points in English, so it’s very hard for me to think in Spanish for coaching,” he said. “It’s very hard for me sometimes to translate to the Latino group.”

Whatever he’s doing, and however he’s managing to do it, Pineda has worked a clever turnaround for the local soccer squad. Left for a lost cause at midseason under then coach Gabriel Heinze, whose stern grip was strangling this team, Atlanta United on Sunday plays a first-round playoff match at New York City FC. Pineda and Rob Valentino, the Atlanta United assistant who bridged the gap between Heinze and Pineda, seemingly have gotten the 2018 MLS Cup champion back on firm footing.

It’s a great unknown just how far Atlanta United, an underdog fifth seed, can advance. But when Pineda begins talking about a team that has gotten back some of its offensive joie de vivre behind the likes of Josef Martinez and Marcelino Moreno as well as a team that has come through all sorts of tumult, it’s clear he is speaking of a team capable of spitting at the odds.

“There’s the quality of the players, No. 1. And then the resilient quality of the team,” he said. “After a period of time we were struggling under the last coach, they came back and now they have the mentality of: OK, we’ve overcome adversity. And that mentality, I think, is very dangerous.”

Who knows if Pineda can have the restorative effect of, say, Nate McMillan, who took over at mid-season and escorted the Hawks to an eye-opening playoff run? But closer to his own sport and heart, Pineda can work off The Schmetzer Precedent. His mentor, too, took over in Seattle in midstream of the 2016 season and ushered the Storm to the MLS Cup.

“Brian did a great job at managing the momentum of the team, getting to the playoffs, building a good mind-set for the team, then continuing that through the postseason,” Pineda recalled.

“That mentality I’ll try to carry on through (Atlanta United). We’ve been very good the last few games; let’s continue with the same momentum.”

In retrospect, the Heinze hiring may go down as one of the worst across the spectrum of Atlanta pro sports – and what an undistinguished list that is. He lasted less than a year while going 2-4-7 (win-loss-draw) in MLS and inspiring a player grievance for violating training limits. Players also went to management when Heinze cut back on water breaks in practice. He alienated those around him quicker than an open cold sore.

Valentino stepped in as interim and began the healing while also going 4-2-2, gaining points vital to Atlanta United making the postseason. “The most important part was they were able to start changing the mentality of the team, so when I got there after Rob took over, I didn’t have to do a lot of the mental side,” Pineda said. “Obviously, I had to push a little bit with certain things, but the change was already in the process. They did a great job in a bad moment helping change the mentality of the team.”

From there, Pineda’s Atlanta United has gone 7-3-3, and has begun to act again like the franchise with the lofty intentions of owning North American soccer. There’s happiness again here, a sense of togetherness, which is kind of important when your name is Atlanta United.

“Our staff now, these guys know the league, know the nuances of the league and the toll it takes on guys mentally and physically,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “What Gonzalo brought to the group is the ability to get the best out of individual guys, understanding that what works for one guy might not work for another guy, being able to maximize the skill and talent of our group.”

In other words, taking care of Job One as a coach.

When reached last week, Pineda had just finished a friendly match with staff members at the Atlanta United training facility. Just 39, fit, and not so far removed from his days as a World Cup-quality player in Mexico, he still can boot the ball about a bit. Yes, he gladly volunteered, he scored twice in the inter-office game. All in all, hardly the kind of team-building that Heinze would have appreciated.

Other sentiments that separate him from his predecessor are plainly obvious.

Like: “One thing I learned is always connect with everyone on the team, not just the important ones, not just the Josefs, the (Ezequiel) Barcos, the Brads, but also the guys who never play. I was told the quality of your leadership is the level of your relationship with the guy who never plays.”

Or when Pineda speaks freely of not only the nervousness of an impending playoff game, but also embracing those jitters: “I know those nerves will help me raise my bar higher, and I hope the players understand that. Those nerves are important to have. They have to acknowledge that pressure to deliver.”

One player who is on the field plenty for Atlanta United, defender Brooks Lennon, said of Pineda, “He’s been there and done it, he knows the pressure that we have, he knows how big the moment is. He has a calmness about him. He’s not worried. He’s not overdoing anything in training or in videos. He’s sticking to the routine that we’ve been successful with.”

Atlanta United’s Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said he doesn’t want to talk much about past coaching – and who can blame him since he was one of those responsible for hiring Heinze. But of the future, he is effusive.

“(Pineda) gets it, he understands how it works here,” Bocanegra said.

“He’s been excellent as a person. I tell you what, this guy has a big future as a coach, and we’re happy he’s here with us – the work ethic he has, the involvement, the inclusion of his entire staff when they go to make decisions. He’s open-minded. He understands the different cultures growing up in Mexico and playing there and playing here. He has a lot to offer.”

Such qualities easily translate into any language.

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