Atlanta celebration with fans

Atlanta United aren’t back. They’re resurging.

For a team that’s always been at its best taking cues from their city, it feels appropriate that things would burn for a while before they got rebuilt. After hitting its lowest point, casting off Gabriel Heinze after just 13 games and two wins, the team has finally found some water for the fire and entered a rapid rebuilding process.

Since Heinze’s firing on July 17, the Five Stripes have added future superstar Luiz Araujo, turned Ezequiel Barco onto a path that may finally bring him to his full potential and jumped from near last place to sixth in the Eastern Conference standings with the possibility of hosting a playoff game looking more likely by the day. On Saturday, they'll travel to fellow playoff contender Philadelphia Union (3:30 pm ET | Univision, TUDN, Twitter) looking to continue their climb up the Eastern Conference.

But are they back? Back implies some kind of regression. Like they just left all the winning elements from 2017 and 2018 sitting in a bag in a storage closet somewhere and all they had to do was circle around, pull them out and start using them again. To an extent, they tried that. It’s just that when they pulled “respected Argentine manager” out of the bag, it had warped into something unrecognizably different.

The key here though is that they didn’t try and convince anyone otherwise. They could have grinded gears for a few more months or so while talking about believing in their guy’s ability to turn it around and break a 20-game winless streak. Instead, club president Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra moved decisively toward a new direction. One that might be a culmination of lessons learned from a couple of years wondering just how long each action would seem more flammable than the next.

That new direction is based on harnessing the relationships that never grew under Frank de Boer and Heinze. And it started with Rob Valentino.

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When Valentino came in as interim manager the team went from laboring under an anxiety-inducing management style to simply being trusted to execute the task at hand by someone who genuinely cared. It’s so small, but it feels monumental to see a manager come to the obvious and correct answer by throwing aside ego and allowing players the freedom to succeed — players like Barco, who returned from the Tokyo Olympics to a new coach and a new sense of trust in his ability.

“He’s got these gifts, certain players just have. Some things you can coach better and do exercises for. Some things, like if I do an individual session with Barco, I can’t teach him how to dribble like that or have that pace,” Valentino said. “There are certain things that you need to let them have the freedom to do. It’s like a ‘I give you one, you give me one’ kind of deal. If I tell him, I need you to do this defensively, then I’ll give you the freedom attacking-wise. I’m not doing anything different.”

Barco has six goals and five assists post-Olympics. He had just one goal and one assist in 2021 beforehand. Six and five would be career highs for him in any season up until this point. And the rest of the team has seen a similar boost. Seven wins in eight games are tied for the best eight-game stretch in club history. The best since 2018.

And now they’ve found a manager in Gonzalo Pineda who’s not only ready to continue those relationships but build on them. Not just with the players but with the club as a whole. That includes every employee, every fan and every member of the Atlanta United ecosystem.

When Pineda joined the club, he spent a day meeting with each department of the club over Zoom. Just to say thanks and let them know that they were a crucial part of the process. On Tuesday, he held a post-practice barbeque at the training ground for all team employees. The coaching staff served the food. That same day, 100 fans from the club’s supporters group were welcomed to the complex to watch that day’s training session. Pineda spoke to them directly before and after, thanking them for their contribution to the club. Then a cake came out, everyone sang happy birthday to full back Ronald Hernandez and the team made sure to try and cover his face with that same cake.

We’re a long, long way from Heinze’s Atlanta United. Whatever that actually looked like. No one outside the club ever met him.

Pineda, however, who joined Atlanta after four hugely successful years as Brian Schmetzer's assistant at the Seattle Sounders, seems to have a different view on isolation.

“I was telling the players inside that fans are our connection with humility and passion. They aren’t paid to be here. They do this because they love the team and they love the game and they love the players. So we need to feel connected with that passion and that humility of loving the sport. For me it’s massive that players understand that and keep enjoying that, as fans of football,” Pineda said after the training session.

“I feel like as players we sometimes live in a different reality. We do what we love to do. We play for three hours with our friends on a fantastic field and a fantastic facility. We have everything we need here. A nice gym, a nice locker room, we have three chefs for us. We have everything we need here. People who come here just to enjoy because they love the passion, that’s what they bring to us. Humility and coming back to the root of the game, which is the passion just for playing. That’s what I feel when I see fans.”

The fans have responded in kind. It didn’t take much to see that the fan support and atmosphere that Atlanta had become famed for at Mercedes-Benz Stadium had begun to dwindle. Last Saturday’s 3-2 win over D.C. United seemed to mark a turning point though. Fans chanted throughout the game. Fans chanted in the concourses afterward. Fans even chanted riding the MARTA transit system back to wherever it is they were going back to. It’s the kind of thing you saw in 2017, 2018 and maybe even a few times in 2019. Not anytime recently.

And it happened because there’s a growing lode of evidence that the product on the field is sustainable and entertaining. And that the connections created between fans and a club off it are genuine. Not forced through a corporate funnel. Or worse, totally nonexistent.

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Those things create a mutually beneficial feedback loop that pushes you toward something bigger. It really does feel like something special is happening in Atlanta. It’s something special that started and has continued due to a willingness to trust that the players can face and fix problems on their own.

“The test for us, and credit to the players, when we started to prepare for the game and started trying to face what we faced today during training sessions, I felt that sometimes they felt uncomfortable,” Pineda said after a 3-0 win over Orlando City. “Then they solved some tactical kinks on their own, and that is where I am very happy. Sometimes, we as coaches can really pay attention to the solutions that the players provide to us, not us always providing the solutions.”

When you rebuild, you can’t recreate each piece exactly the same. What Atlanta United captured in 2017 and 2018 isn’t replicable. This version isn’t better or worse. But it might be more sustainable. This is a team that has learned from their mistakes and turned into a team thriving through the interpersonal connections that make any of this matter in the first place. With Pineda at the center and without the clear intentions of his predecessors to move on and away from Atlanta, this is the kind of paradigm shift that might just establish the kind of culture the team forgot to be looking for at times. This isn’t a team back to its old ways. This is a team building on them. Resurging not returning.

Atlanta United aren’t back. And it’s the best thing to happen to the club in a long time.

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