It happens to almost every professional coach in the world: The end of the honeymoon.
The job is always hard work – long hours, painstaking preparations, heavy travel. But there are times when the weight rides that much heavier on the shoulders, as setbacks stack up, pressure escalates, bad results cut deeper. Such is the moment facing Gonzalo Pineda at Atlanta United.
After a strong start to his tenure last season, the Five Stripes find themselves beset by adversity, laboring through a 2W-4L-1D slump across all competitions over the past month. Pineda’s talent-rich but richly inconsistent side crashed out of the US Open Cup in highly painful fashion Wednesday night, leaking three unanswered goals to fall 3-2 to budding rivals Nashville SC in extra time at GEODIS Park and extending their curious inability to win consecutive matches all year.
Gallingly, a steady drip-drip of injuries has metastasized into something more like water torture. Ozzie Alonso, Josef Martinez, Brad Guzan, Miles Robinson and Dylan Castanheira have all been sidelined by serious damage – that’s effectively the spine of the team, ripped out well before Memorial Day.
Andrew Gutman seemingly joined the list at midweek with a shoulder issue that has yet to be publicly diagnosed. Luiz Araujo, Emerson Hyndman and Machop Chol have also spent extended time on the trainer's table in 2022, and George Campbell, Santiago Sosa, Dom Dwyer and Caleb Wiley are all listed as questionable heading into Week 11’s nationally-televised visit from New England at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (1:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes).
“I have never seen something this bad,” Pineda said of the brutal injury crisis after last weekend’s 4-1 home defeat of Chicago Fire FC, a highly encouraging display nonetheless marred by Robinson’s ruptured Achilles, a devastating loss at the heart of the backline that provoked questions about what might possibly be behind all the damage.
“We have a very good sports science department. We measure everything. We reflect on everything we do. I think they do a very, very good job,” said Pineda. “Their standard is very high and obviously, we will check again, but I don't think there's anything particularly different to what we're doing compared to last year or even years before.
“I mean, at times you just have bad luck and we just have to try to find a solution.”
The former Seattle Sounders assistant started his Atlanta adventure impressively, stacking up a 7W-3D-4L record after his August arrival to steer ATLUTD into the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs, a fine achievement in the wake of Gabriel Heinze’s mostly disastrous regime. It felt like a new dawn for the club, a charismatic young leader installing fresh ideas and the lessons of a winning culture from his previous employer.
Pineda, 39, is still a young manager – the third-youngest in MLS, in fact. And if some bumps were always likely in his first full season as a head coach, being robbed of so much top talent and locker-room leadership has imposed an even harsher reality check than expected. His squad’s relative inexperience has shown itself, too, with naivete and a propensity for concentration lapses costing them on several matchdays.
In Nashville, a cheaply-given penalty kick foul by Alan Franco just after halftime cracked the door for NSC to begin their rally from 2-0 down. Some slipshod set-piece defending opened it further, culminating in what SBNation’s ATLUTD site Dirty South Soccer dubbed a “demoralizing collapse” in a tournament the Five Stripes were technically still defending champions from their 2019 conquest.
“In certain moments, little details – we talk about set pieces, we work a lot on set pieces, we work a lot on the long throw-ins. Just little pieces of lack of concentration or pressing at the right times,” lamented Pineda. “Anyways, I felt that the team fought. They did well for many parts, but it’s just that little pieces were not as focused and the opponent is very clinical. The opponent gets one chance and they put it in the net.”
As early as this is in his head coaching journey, the former Mexican international has experienced all this and much more in his time in the sport. Now he must show that he’s got some solutions. Perhaps it’s a shuffle in personnel, a shift from his favored 4-3-3 formation or a more aggressive tempo throughout the 90 minutes.
Pineda is a Brian Schmetzer acolyte who seems to have picked up his former boss’ preference for balance and control. Some have suggested that the current options at his disposal – with the likes of Thiago Almada, Marcelino Moreno and Araujo, ATL have splashed many millions on creativity and dynamism in attack – necessitate a more gung-ho mindset, a lean into the showtime ethos that defined the club's salad days. Or will he tack in the other direction and decide to win the midfield battles first and foremost?
These are just the sort of crises that demonstrate the value of top coaches, and Sunday offers a useful litmus test.
The Revolution have slipped from their 2021 Supporters’ Shield-winning peak and are winless on the road (0W-4L-1D across all competitions) this season, while Atlanta are 3W-0L-2D at the Benz so far this year and haven’t lost there in 12 games and counting. Yet the Revs retain ample quality with Carles Gil, Adam Buksa & Co., and hit FC Cincinnati for five in their midweek Open Cup win.
Whatever course of action he chooses, Pineda will recognize that he’s waded into deeper water now. It’s said that MLS honors can’t be won, but can certainly be lost at this time of year, and his ability to manage this time of hardship could greatly influence the trajectory of the season ahead.