Gonzalo Pineda is the next manager of Atlanta United. It’s a bit of change in profile.
The last three managers have had experience either playing for Europe’s best clubs, managing Europe’s best clubs, or both. However, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that none of those things seem to be infallible indicators of success in MLS. Let’s be real: The bar has never been lower for what a manager has to do at Atlanta United to be considered successful.
That doesn’t necessarily make the appointment of former Seattle Sounders assistant Pineda less surprising, though. Atlanta were courting former Roma manager Paulo Fonseca just a couple of weeks ago. Fonseca certainly fit “The Profile” we’d grown used to seeing. Atlanta took a swing at bringing him in and missed. Immediately, they appeared to move on to Pineda.
That’s a "coming across five lanes of I-85 traffic to make an exit a tenth of a mile away" level swerve. Not that Pineda isn’t accomplished, but his playing career didn’t match Frank de Boer’s or Gabriel Heinze’s, and his managerial career started quite literally a few minutes ago. That means that Pineda has pretty much everything to prove.
However, I think that understanding what his priorities should and will be coming into Atlanta can help us understand why the club changed direction so quickly. Frankly, considering how the last two hires went, Pineda starts to look pretty good on paper. Because the first priority is...
See? Low bar. But it needs to be said after reports suggested that the culture in Atlanta under Heinze wasn't the most hospitable for everyone involved and saw him fall out with club and city legend Josef Martinez. Frank de Boer certainly had a gentler touch, but struggled to communicate in meaningful ways with his players and lost the locker room with relative immediacy. You don’t have to look further than the team’s response to interim manager Rob Valentino to understand that quality relationships in the locker room have been lacking and how necessary they can be.
However, like Carlos Bocanegra said after Heinze’s dismissal, you don’t know who someone truly is as a manager and person until they walk in the door. We won’t really know how Pineda will handle the job until he does. But all indications seem to be that he’s well-liked among players, staff and media alike in Seattle.
That last part feels important after club president Darren Eales mentioned the need to have an ambassador for the club as manager. Especially after Heinze seemed media avoidant to the point that in-house social media had limited access to players and training.
There’s also this from Cristian Roldan in 2017 when Pineda joined Seattle’s staff. Roldan roomed with Pineda during preseason during Pineda’s playing years. Buddy, trust me when I say that if you can survive a roommate situation with your relationship intact, you’re probably going to be pretty OK at man-management in other situations too.
“I think he brings expectations, I think he brings a little bit of pressure but good pressure obviously,” Roldan said. “He brings experience, commitment, a whole lot to the team. I’ve known him for a couple years now and he’s been great to me and even better now. It’s the little things that he does that stand out for me.
“I think he’s going be a great coach down the line and he’ll eventually be a head coach for sure.”
Good call, Cristian. But it should be noted that if you’re going to build a culture, you can’t do it alone. Which brings us to...
It’s hard to overstate how much Rob Valentino has been a breath of fresh air as interim manager. You see it when you talk to the players and, most importantly, you see it on the field. Things have been going well enough for Atlanta that a large majority of people involved would have been just fine letting Valentino finish out the year in charge while the coaching search continued.
Valentino was never going to be the guy at the end of that search. The experience, even as an assistant, isn’t quite there yet. But Atlanta have stated that Valentino will stay on as an assistant and hopefully Pineda understands how valuable Valentino can be. Perhaps he’ll see a lot of himself in Valentino. If you’re trying to build a culture on top of the issues left by Heinze and de Boer, you need guys like Valentino in the organization.
Which, speaking of culture...
Atlanta fans are going to have to begrudgingly say a lot of nice things about the Sounders when talking about this hire. There’s a reason that a Seattle assistant is the guy who’s been getting head coaching buzz for a while now and not say ... well, almost any other team in MLS. Seattle are the standard every other team aspires to. Plain and simple.
Pineda has been part of a culture that has produced four MLS Cup trips in five years and an unending stream of consistency through ever-changing circumstances. There aren’t many teams that could have rolled out the youngest lineup in MLS history and picked up a road win like Seattle did just a few weeks ago in Austin. There's an expectation and understanding that winning is the only option, no matter the circumstances. It’s understandable that Atlanta would want their own version of that.
Atlanta will want that within the confines of their own club identity, though. Which means we should probably talk about...
No one, not even Gonzalo Pineda, knows what Pineda’s tactical identity is at this point. He’ll certainly have ideas and theories. But we’ve never seen what those look like when it’s Pineda running the show. He’s been credited with having a heavy input into the tactical plans for Seattle, but those plans have always been filtered through Brian Schmetzer. When we find out what Gonzalo Pineda’s uninhibited style looks like, will it fit with what Atlanta has repeatedly stated they want as a club?
Early indications say yes. At least, if you take into account his influences. In an interview with Keith Costigan earlier this year, Pineda explained what he’s taken from his former managers.
“I have three main influences in my career. Ricardo La Volpe for sure tactically. His style of always attack, attack, attack and how to always play from the back, positionally, movement, tactics, I learned a lot from Ricardo La Volpe,” Pineda said.
“Then obviously Hugo Sanchez. And that’s more about the mentality and the hard work and how to involve everyone to achieve something. And then Enrique Meza, who has a lot of similarities to Brian Schmetzer. A great human being first and a very clear coach that looks at specific details technically on the players and I shared that vision with him about the little fundamentals. The pass and the first touch. Sometimes we overthink the game. Sometimes we overthink the game talking about 4-3-3 against 5-2-3 but at the end of the day if a player can’t connect a five-yard pass, you’re done.”
On paper, that sounds like a fit for Atlanta United. There has to be some entertainment value there. And so far, under Rob Valentino, a simplified system that allows for attacking freedom has worked wonders for the Five Stripes going forward. Which is why whatever tweaks Pineda makes probably need to be on a smaller scale. At least initially.
If Pineda swoops in and changes everything immediately, you would almost expect the team to get cultural whiplash from the last few weeks. Now’s not the time to refit everything in your image. Not with Atlanta still in a potential playoff race and not with 10 of the team’s next 14 games coming at home with the fanbase desperate for something to be excited about. The offseason will be there to make massive changes if you want them.
This one is pretty simple. It will be nice to see a coach in Atlanta that values data and understands how that data and sports science can help a team win. Atlanta are going from this…
That seems like a win.
Which, speaking of winning, that brings us to…
The last priority is the crux of all of this. Atlanta are on their third managerial search in a year. Technically, Pineda is coach six in four years. They swung big on their first-ever hire and nailed it with Tata Martino. They tried to do the same thing with their next two and you can still feel the breeze from the whiffs. Basically, they realized that at some point you have to settle down.
They came into a new environment fast and heavy as an expansion club, and it worked out great for a while. Then it crashed. And then they gave it one more shot and it crashed again. Now they’re realizing it might be nice to come home to a family, a dog, a clean house, a mattress that’s not on the floor, some home-cooked meals and lengthy viewing sessions of "The Great British Bake Off." Basically, it’s time to get some consistency.
Personally, I think some of the fear of not having a big-name manager centered around the players Atlanta United wanted to bring in. And initially, it may have been true that someone like Miguel Almiron would have only come to play for Atlanta United if Tata Martino had the reigns. But the MLS landscape has shifted quickly. And it’s become very apparent that you don’t need to have a superstar manager to convince young and talented South American players that the league can be beneficial for them. Heck, new DP Luiz Araujo is already in Atlanta and Thiago Almada is reportedly on the way next year, and they didn’t even know who the manager was going to be.
What that means is that you can have the manager be the center of the wheel instead of the entire wheel and be just fine. If Pineda can be a steadying and unifying force holding together the highest-spending club in the league for a handful of years, then you have the potential for Atlanta to be highly successful for a long, long time. Considering that this is Pineda’s first job and considering his experience within MLS, there’s a possibility he sees value in hanging around for a while in Atlanta and building something special.
Pineda’s hiring is certainly a change of pace for the Five Stripes. But that change of pace might be the long-term solution this team needs.