By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 12, 2021) US Soccer Players – Atlanta United’s just-announced new head coach arrives in Georgia with quite a resume. He holds a UEFA A coaching license, and he’s bilingual. He joins the Five Stripes from the coaching staff of a highly successful club that has reached its league’s championship final three times in his four years of service there, winning one of them. As a player, he made nearly 300 appearances in one of the top leagues in the Western Hemisphere and represented his country dozens of times, including in the World Cup, the Olympics, Confederations Cup, and Copa America.
All of this jibes with Atlanta’s established preference for cosmopolitan coaching hires with Spanish-language skills, global experiences, and other hallmarks of an international soccer background. What shifts the conversation markedly, and perhaps strangely, is that we’re talking about someone who’s spent most of the past decade in MLS as a player, then coach with the Seattle Sounders.
Gonzalo Pineda officially became the new coach of Atlanta United on Thursday morning. It’s his first time in the top job after becoming one of the most respected assistants in the league. He also checks a lot of boxes for a franchise insistent on returning to the MLS elite posthaste, ideally in time for qualification and a deep run in this year’s playoffs.
Considering the five-year-old club’s track record of name hires from abroad, it’s a departure of sorts. What’s more interesting is that it reflects a certain kind of reality check for an organization that has placed the alluring but amorphous concept of towering ambition at the center of its identity. Now they’ve turned to Seattle, the club they’ve always aimed for, both as role model to emulate and target to eclipse.
“When you look at the success that Seattle have had and the part that Gonzalo’s played in all that, we feel he’s someone that can be very successful in Major League Soccer and, we feel, really successful here in Atlanta,” said club president Darren Eales in a Thursday press availability. “Because I spoke about the values, about it not just being on the pitch, but off the pitch, and I think Gonzalo understands that.”
As tortured as it may sound to use a baseball metaphor here, it’s instructive. United hit a home run by selecting Gerardo “Tata” Martino as their first-ever coach. With Eales, Carlos Bocanegra, and others on staff to help handle MLS’s unique quirks, Martino fulfilled every expectation imaginable.
He attracted casual fans with an FC Barcelona and Argentina national team past, then kept them with an entertainingly high-octane style. He laid the groundwork for a productive academy system. He made the most of an expensively-assembled squad in terms of results, winning MLS Cup in their second season of existence and missing out on a Supporters’ Shield by just two standings points. He was even clever enough to bow out on top.
The thing about hitting home runs, thrilling as they are, is that they are inevitably accompanied by strikeouts and pop flies. In pure statistical terms, even the greatest power hitters of all time averaged 10 to 20 at bats per dinger. So perhaps we shouldn’t have been as surprised as we mostly were when Tata’s successors Frank de Boer and Gabriel Heinze failed to achieve what he did, across multiple evaluation points.
The Five Stripes plummeted to 12th in last season’s Eastern Conference standings and hover in 10th-place at present. Allegations of CBA violations still hang in the air. The fans who make up those league-leading crowds at Mercedes-Benz Stadium are growing impatient. So United concluded that they need something different. More of a contact hitter, perhaps, able to advance runners with consistency and intelligence rather than moon shots.
Basically, Pineda allows ATL to have their cake and eat it too. The combination of his Mexico background and time spent at the heart of the Sounders’ de facto dynasty offers comparable communication and cultural competencies with a deep understanding of the domestic environment that has suddenly grown tougher for the 2018 league champs. How many rising young coaches can cite a collection of influences and mentors like Ricardo La Volpe, Hugo Sanchez, Brian Schmetzer, and Preki?
Unlike his predecessors, Pineda arrives in midseason, optimistic of turning things around right away with a fraction of the learning curve that greeted de Boer and Heinze. Notably, he seems ready to work with much of the existing staff, including interim boss Rob Valentino. That’s got to appeal to a front office subjected to increasing scrutiny for their decision to disassemble large chunks of Tata Martino’s MLS Cup-winning roster.
“Sometimes when the connection with the coach and the players is not there, it looks like a mess, but it is not. I just need to come in and try to settle down things, try to stabilize,” said Pineda on Thursday. “I don’t think it’s going to be a massive change in terms of the culture and the ethos and the work ethic, I think they all have that. Yesterday I have a very good meeting with the players, and they were all very good, very positive about the rest of the season, some comments about making playoffs and winning again, and I can see a group of players that is there with a lot of potential.”
Even a modest tack towards pragmatism can go a long way when you still retain Atlanta’s financial muscle and willpower. Pineda’s name came up for multiple MLS vacancies in recent years. Last winter, he advanced deep enough into the interview process with DC United to have discussed salary and contractual terms. That move didn’t pan out, reportedly because of the modest size of the capital club’s salary offer, a sign that Pineda was willing to wait for the ideal opportunity.
Now he’s snagged one of MLS’s highest-profile posts. In the process, he’s added to its trend of multi-lingual coaches with a human touch and broad experience of life both inside the league and out, following the likes of Oscar Pareja, Gio Savarese, Luchi Gonzalez, and Wilfried Nancy. Those prognosticating on the identity of future arrivals would be wise to keep those skill sets in mind.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Berhalter shows some personality, and so does the USMNT
- Preview: 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup final
- Preview: USMNT vs Jamaica 2021 Gold Cup quarterfinals
- Four takeaways from the opening phases of the 2021 Gold Cup
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