Red-hot Atlanta United pass latest test thanks to more Barco brilliance

Everything appears to have come together at just the right time for Atlanta United under Gonzalo Pineda.

After they fell 2-0 to Nashville SC in his head coaching debut on August 21, Atlanta have won their last three matches by a combined scoreline of 10-2, including Saturday afternoon's 3-2 victory over D.C. United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Suddenly, thanks to an eight-match stretch where they've claimed 21 of a possible 24 points, they've found themselves in the thick of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs race, sitting fourth in the Eastern Conference standings at the final whistle. They could potentially make up even more ground in the coming weeks as a pair of Southeastern rivals, Nashville SC and Orlando City SC, are within striking distance with nine matches remaining despite those two teams having games in hand.

Pineda hasn't been around for the entirety of a winning run that began under interim head coach Rob Valentino following the parting of ways with Gabriel Heinze, but the pieces are falling into place as Atlanta continue their climb up the ladder.

"Compared to where we were after I spoke to you guys earlier in the year, we are in a lot better position now," center back Anton Walkes said. "I take it game by game. That worked for us when things were going bad, so we need to continue that mindset now when things are going good."

While Atlanta could have folded after seeing their 2-0 lead reduced to 2-1 thanks to a Felipe Martins golazo – they blew 2-0 home leads to both Nashville and the Philadelphia Union earlier in the season – they eventually saw the match out, thanks to an incredible solo run by Marcelino Moreno that set up a George Bello tap-in goal, effectively ending D.C.'s hopes of a comeback.

"At 2-1, you could see the mentality of the team," Pineda said. "You could see them continue playing, continue fighting, continue winning balls, and then they created a few more chances. That’s the response I want to see. That’s the response that’s going to put us in a good place, and I loved that. I could test the mentality of the team, and the mentality’s good."

Key to this stretch run has been Ezequiel Barco, who has recorded six goals and five assists in nine matches since returning from the Tokyo Olympics. Saturday's exploits included a nice combination with fellow DP Josef Martinez for Atlanta's second goal, coming after his second free-kick goal in as many matches.

But Pineda wasn't about to take credit for the 22-year-old Argentine's improvement.

"It's all Barco," he said. "I don't know how he trained before. I don't know how he played before. I couldn't see it. What I know is since I [arrived] here, I can see a very hungry player, a guy that wants more and more and more. He's [always] looking for opportunities, not just in the game but in training sessions...

"I don't think we've seen the best Barco yet. I feel he can give us more opportunities and way more because he's super talented. His ceiling is super high, and I hope he can reach that ceiling."

Barco certainly understood that the start to his MLS career wasn't up to standard, but he set a goal for himself prior to 2021 to turn things around.

"At the beginning of the season I came into the year with a new way of thinking," he said through a translator. "I was very convinced to start well and have a good year in Atlanta ... After [the Olympics] I came back motivated to help the team, and at the time we were going through a difficult moment. I’ve been preparing myself to be well physically and mentally and able to help the team in the best way I can."