Atlanta United’s place in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs is far from guaranteed. In fact, they sit in eighth place (one spot out) heading into the October international window.
But head coach Gonzalo Pineda is confident in their chances to emerge rosy from the jam-packed Eastern Conference slate when games return in earnest.
The Five Stripes’ new manager, speaking to The Call Up co-hosts Jillian Sakovits and Susannah Collins, laid out the importance of their resumption October 16 at a back-in-form Toronto FC (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+).
“We have three games at home, three games away,” Pineda said, referencing their six remaining regular-season tests. “We need to start with Toronto, we need to go there and try to make a statement on we really want to make the playoffs and hopefully that puts us in the playoffs at the end of next month.”
Pineda has been at the helm for seven matches since joining from the Seattle Sounders, where he was a longtime assistant coach on Brian Schmetzer’s staff. He’s gone 4W-3L-0D ever since, with away defeats to CF Montréal and Philadelphia, as well as against Nashville SC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
To keep piling up points during crunch time, the health and productivity of Josef Martinez will prove crucial. Their star striker has been battling knocks, though recently reached 100 career goals across all competitions for Atlanta. And when Martinez is firing on all cylinders, their attack – coupled by Marcelino Moreno, Luiz Araujo and Ezequiel Barco – fully comes alive.
“I can imagine it’s going to be one of the highlights in his career but not because of the 100 goals which is already impressive and [being] the quickest guy to score those goals in less amount of games,” Pineda said. “It’s just what he went through the last couple injuries and he probably, his mind, he didn’t even realize he was playing again after that the second injury, his knee and all the complications he had. So it was very emotional because of that, it meant a lot for him to be back and scoring goals.”
Returning to the playoffs is front of mind for Atlanta, who missed in 2020 though are only a few years removed from hoisting MLS Cup 2018 before a record home crowd. They’ve endured ups and downs this year, which led to the departure of former manager Gabriel Heinze, though final judgments will be made around postseason fate.
To get there? Pineda feels that culture, both in the immediate and long-term, will play a key role.
“We all talk about culture, it’s a very good word, very nice word nowadays, everybody uses it to try and create good culture,” Pineda said. “But what is that? How do you taste it? How do you use it in real life? And it’s about creating good behaviors, good coaching points, good mentalities, good atmospheres around the team and that’s how you create the culture of a team with little changes in the behaviors that we all do as human beings and that’s something that has been very good from the players taking over and earning that respect from each other.”
For more from Pineda, check out the full The Call Up interview here.