Rob Valentino ATL coach

Rob Valentino probably isn’t the next guy. It’s fun, of course, to imagine a world where he is. It’s a world where Atlanta United's coaching search stalls and, in the meantime, Valentino helps lead Atlanta on not just a run, but a headlong sprint back into the ethos of winning and swagger that’s been absent from the club for a couple of years now.

It’d be a helluva story. And that’s why it’s highly unlikely it happens. That’s just the reality here. His current interim position is the first time he’s worked beyond an assistant level, and he really doesn’t even have much experience doing that. He worked as an assistant with Orlando City’s USL side starting in 2016 and joined Atlanta United in a similar role in 2018 before becoming a first-team assistant in 2019. Considering the experience of previous Atlanta United managers, Valentino’s CV doesn’t quite match up.

Valentino understands that. There are still dues to pay and experiences to gain. And even if there’s a slight chance that Valentino leads Atlanta on that truly special, job-winning run, Valentino will know, sometimes, the opportunity just doesn’t come.

Valentino, the 13th pick of the 2008 MLS SuperDraft as a center back out of the University of San Francisco, spent less than a year with the New England Revolution before being traded to the Colorado Rapids. His time in Colorado ended once the season ended. He headed to the USL’s FC Tampa Bay without having made a single MLS appearance.

He got close, though. Agonizingly close. Keep you up at night for years unless you find a proper outlet close.

In May 2009, late in a game between the Rapids and New York Red Bulls, Valentino got the call to enter the game. He’d likely only be out there for a minute or so. He’d serve his purpose as a time-wasting mechanism, then go out and earn a club-trillion stat line of one minute played followed by a whole bunch of zeros. But an appearance at the highest level of the sport in your country is still an appearance. So he walked from the bench to the edge of midfield and waited for his chance.

It never came. The ball didn’t leave the field. No one fouled anyone. Nobody faked a cramp. The whistle didn’t blow until it marked the end of the game. When it did, there was Valentino, stuck on the sideline with no idea that this timeline had brought him as close as he’d ever come.

Even after he left Colorado, it still seemed like there might be a chance to get across the line. Valentino eventually ended up with Orlando City – the USL edition – and became a critical piece for the Lions. He earned USL-Pro Defender of the Year honors in 2011 while leading them to three regular-season titles and two postseason titles from 2011-14 as a captain and centerpiece of the Lions' defense.

With that kind of performance, it seemed like Valentino might be among the Lions’ USL players called to join the MLS version of the team beginning in 2015. Paul Tenorio talked to Valentino about the opportunity in a 2014 profile for The Orlando Sentinel.

Now, Valentino once again finds himself on the cusp of fulfilling his dream. In his fourth season with Orlando City, the Lions' captain is on the verge of earning a contract to join the club when it transitions to MLS in 2015.

The zeroes on his stat sheet in MLS still drive him.

"As soon as I left MLS, my goal was to get back," Valentino said. "And I found a place in Orlando where I felt I could make that goal and that dream come true. I've said my goal and my dream would be to debut with this club at the MLS level, and that starts here. It starts with this season and it starts with the next game and the next practice and proving myself here first."

He didn’t get back. Orlando opted to not include Valentino on their MLS roster. He moved on to another USL team. Fifteen games later, his playing career ended.

Now, in a Friday night rivalry game (8 pm | ESPN, ESPN Deportes), he’ll return to Orlando in charge of the Lions’ biggest rival. And with all that history in mind, he’s only got one thing he wants to say to them: Thanks.

“It's the best thing that happened to me. I think things happen like that and you face a little bit of adversity,” Valentino said. “It's good for your character as a person, it's good for your career that sometimes you might find yourself in a different position. Because it ended up kind of sparking my coaching career a little bit. But right now, that’s not my focus. My focus is to coach these guys and to really focus on the game.”

He’s not kidding about that last part, especially in regards to focusing on the players that have been thrown under his wing. Because, and it’s important to note this before it becomes cliche, there are Ted Lasso-esque qualities to Valentino. And that’s meant as the highest compliment. Valentino will even admit himself it seems like his words have always felt pulled off a screen. It’s just that now, in the strange and uncertain day-to-day life of an interim manager, everyone else cares he’s saying them.

“I sound like a movie quote all the time. But it's what I feel is what I believe. And I think no one ever really cared what I said anyways before. But now it's like you're in this position and they're like, “Yeah, what do you have to say?” And they think it’s important,” Valentino said.

The “they” in question here is me and you and everyone else unfamiliar with Valentino before all this. It seems the players and coaches and everyone else that’s worked with Valentino were already well aware they should be paying attention to what he says. When Atlanta announced Valentino as interim manager, a flood of public support from former players and colleagues came in. And since he’s taken the job, plenty of support has come from his current players as well.

“I believe all it will take is one or two wins and momentum will shift very quickly. Especially with Rob being here and just how open he is with us. Guys have a smile on their face every day now and everything’s a bit more energized here with Rob. I think he knows everybody even better than even what our previous manager did. It’s just mutual respect we’ve got for him. We want to fight for him a little bit more because he is a great guy. He’s a great person and a great human being and we owe it to him right now,” defender Anton Walkes said post-game last Saturday.

“He’s been here and he’s seen what it’s like to work under coaches like for example Tata [Martino]. He was there when the team had its success so he knows our philosophy and the blueprint. And again, like I said, the relationships he has with players. We’ve got that type of respect for him. He knows what he’s doing. Before he even had the main role I don’t think I’ve seen anyone work harder than him at the club. I believe in him and he believes in us and he knows the quality we have and he just wants us to go out and express ourselves.”

There are always two ways that people coaching a game and talking about “belief” and “caring for one another” can go. The first, and most popular, is disastrous. Fake and empty monologues lead to distrust and eventual collapse. If there’s an ounce of disingenuousness there, people will find out. The second and much more rare way is there’s buy-in. The discussions are real and produce real results.

Valentino seems to fit into the latter category. He often mentions “serving” the players with whatever he’s doing. When he took over the job, he made sure to let his staff know that, as far as he saw it, their relationship was unchanged and he should be treated exactly the same. He talks about making sure players are doing the basic task of encouraging each other on a day-to-day basis. And it appears he completely understands the role he’s been handed. The weird role an interim manager serves where every moment and tweak to the team feels indefinite, but can still have a lasting impact.

“It's not permanent. When, and if I do go back to whatever position that might be, I don't want this to damage it. And it might, in some cases, I'll have to live with that,” Valentino said. “But I'm going to do what I think is best for the club. I'm going to do what I think is best for them as players into the games and set them up to be successful. But ultimately, when it’s all finished and said and done, I hope that I can help them as a human being as well.”

Rob Valentino hugs Josef Martinez

Rob Valentino probably isn’t the next guy. But consider what we know about past Atlanta United managers. The controversy surrounding Gabriel Heinze. The general discontent in the locker room under Frank de Boer. And consider what we can see from the team itself. In just two games under Valentino, they’ve looked far more effective and far more exciting thanks to the freedom he’s encouraged.

He’s likely not the next guy. But he appears to be the right guy for this very moment. The guy who can be a bridge from a culture that has provided more than a year of difficult results to a cultural foundation in place for the next manager to build comfortably on.

Then, eventually, Valentino will finally get his opportunity somewhere. Nothing interim about it. Stuck on the sideline. Right where he’s supposed to be.