It was off the coast of Alaska on a yacht where Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank, president Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra met with the man who would soon be the club's next head coach.
Seriously. That is a real thing that happened, not the set-up to a J. Sam Jones fan-fiction column.
Gonzalo Pineda traveled up from Seattle, while Eales and Bocanegra flew to Alaska from Atlanta. Then they took a boat to reach Blank's yacht. On Thursday, the club made the bond official, naming Pineda the club's fourth all-time head coach.
“We want to get wins, we want to get trophies, we want to play our front-foot style," Eales told media on a virtual press conference. "As you all know, we’re greedy at Atlanta United. We don’t just set the bar at trophies, we want to play a certain style as well. And the utmost importance is their character. Gonzalo with his values matches our organization.”
Pineda, a highly-respected former assistant with the Seattle Sounders, takes charge after the club parted ways with Gabriel Heinze just 13 games into his first season. This job with Atlanta is the 38-year-old's first head coaching gig, though he arrives with plenty of experience.
A former Mexico national team midfielder, Pineda spent almost his entire playing career in Liga MX, most famously with Pumas and Chivas Guadalajara. He ended his playing career with two seasons in Seattle before re-joining the club in 2017 as an assistant on Brian Schmetzer's staff.
“During the process, we knew he was the man for the job," Bocanegra said. "Along with his playing experience, his role with the Sounders for the last five years, we feel very confident Gonzalo is going to step into this role with his knowledge of MLS, the type of person he is. We’re very excited for him to come in and lead this club.”
Though Atlanta sit 10th in the Eastern Conference standings and have endured a lackluster last 18 months, Pineda jumped at the opportunity.
“I don’t think they had to say anything special," Pineda said. "When you are offered Atlanta United, you go for it. They’re a young club but they’ve already won trophies, successful since the beginning. They have a fantastic group of players, fantastic stadium, great fans — which is one of the main reasons I was pumped to join the club, because of the fans. Again, the whole package for Atlanta is attractive.”
Atlanta haven't been a staple of stability, though. After Tata Martino led the club to MLS Cup in 2018 and departed for the Mexican national team, Pineda is the club's third permanent coach (plus Stephen Glass' extensive time as interim head coach to close out 2020 and Rob Valentino's month-long stint as current interim boss).
The club and Frank de Boer mutually agreed to part ways early in the 2020 season, then Heinze took over this winter and lasted only a few months into the campaign.
“Stability is something that every club works for," Eales said. "We had some great success out of the gate, but of late there has been some turnover. We felt where we were, with a squad we believe in … We felt like with Gonzalo for stability.”
Stability is something the Sounders have in abundance.
Schmetzer has been with the club since before their MLS days and was an assistant in their inaugural season until he got the job on an interim basis in 2016. There he led the team to MLS Cup, the first of four trips to the final during his time as head coach, winning twice (2016, 2019).
Schmetzer's influence on Pineda is immense.
“I have no starting point there because Brian is a fantastic mentor," Pineda said. "I learned so many things on the field, but the most important values he gave me were off the field. How he treats people, how he thinks of the human before a soccer player. He’s a fantastic manager. Calm and in control, doesn’t lose his mind very often. He understands the league, understands the processes, where to put players in the best places to perform.
"Thank you for the question because that gave me a little opportunity to say: Brian you are the best. You will always be my mentor, you will always be very important in my development as a coach.”
What to expect of Gonzalo Pineda's Atlanta United
An untimely positive COVID-19 test has delayed Pineda's start.
Pineda is vaccinated and says he feels fine, but isn't planning on taking over first-team training until next Thursday. For the week between the announcement and his first session, Valentino will remain in charge for both matchdays: Sunday against LAFC (4 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes) and then Wednesday against Toronto FC (7 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+).
“I don’t think it’ll be a massive change in terms of culture, ethos and work ethic," Pineda said. "They already have that. Yesterday I had a very good meeting with the players, they’re very positive about the rest of the season. I see a group of players with potential. I don’t have to come and change things, especially because Rob Valentino has done a tremendous job.”
Atlanta beat Columbus Crew 3-2 last weekend, breaking a 12-game winless run and lifting them to 10th in the Eastern Conference. They still sit six points below the playoff line, but optimism remains for 2021 and beyond. Pineda's deal runs through the 2024 season.
“Gonzalo is someone who can come in midseason and be able to help us in that transition because he hasn’t got to up to speed about the league and the various challenges," Eales said. "But this wasn’t a quick fix. We wanted to hire someone who could be with us long-term. We’re delighted it’s a long-term commitment.”
Pineda is promising more of the same that fans have seen under Valentino than Heinze's 13 games: An up-tempo, attack-minded squad. Before talking tactics, he said the area of focus was the players' mentality.
"We’re going to play with passion, intensity," Pineda said. "I want a team that represents the fans, that’s the connection I want to build. That’s the first thing I want, before the game model. ... After that, we’ll have to work on organization. I don’t want to explain my gameplan now, because we don’t have enough time, but I want to play the same as the club have been trying to play. Attack-minded, always on the front foot.”
Pineda's first order of business will be integrating new signing Luiz Araujo, a Designated Player acquired from Lille just before the Secondary Transfer Window deadline, and plotting how to optimize the squad's talent. Araujo, Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco and Marcelino Moreno combine to form one of the most opulent attacks in MLS history.
“The club did a great job in signing a very good player in Luiz Araujo," Pineda said. "I’ve watched games of him, I know exactly how he’ll fit into what I’m thinking tactically. I think he’s going to be massively important to our success now and in the future."
“As you all know, the great thing about MLS, you just need to get in the playoffs," Eales added. "Then anything is possible.”