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Atlanta United eyes Playoffs with coaching change, championship aspirations intact

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Atlanta United remains dedicated to its championship aspirations, and in pursuit of that goal, the club has announced a change in coaching leadership. The club announced Monday that it had parted ways with head coach Gonzalo Pineda.

"I want to start by thanking Gonzalo Pineda," said Garth Lagerwey, Atlanta United President and CEO during a virtual media availability on Monday, following the announcement. "He's an exemplary human being, a pleasure to work with, and has embodied our core values here at AMBSE."

Pineda was at the helm of Atlanta United since August 2021 and departs the club as the longest-tenured head coach in club history. In that time, the club reached the MLS Cup Playoffs twice but failed to advance past the first round.

"We just haven't reached or achieved the results that we hoped for," Lagerwey acknowledged, "and as a result, we've decided to move in a new direction."

Atlanta United boasts a talented squad and the club's ambition for silverware remains undimmed, which is why the club’s belief is that a “new voice in the locker room” can unlock its full potential. Stepping into the interim head coach role is Rob Valentino, a valuable asset to the club since 2018, when he joined as assistant coach for Atlanta United 2’s inaugural season.

Valentino also served as interim head coach from July 18, 2021, replacing Gabriel Heinze, to August 12, 2021, when he joined Pineda’s staff. Valentino's record as interim head coach was 4W-2L-2D.

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"Sometimes a new voice at the top can be a breath of fresh air," Lagerwey explained. "In broad strokes, I think that talent is 80% of the equation and coaching is 20%. But in a pragmatic manner, the thing you can change in the middle of the season is the coach."

This leadership change is not only a reflection on the previous coaching staff, but rather a calculated move to inject fresh energy and a different perspective. Lagerwey also referenced Brian Schmetzer, who was brought in as interim coach for the Seattle Sounders when the executive was General Manager, and won MLS Cup in 2016.

"Because we believe we're talented, because we believe the group still has a lot of potential, because we believe we still have time to make it into the Playoffs, we thought the change was appropriate," Lagerwey emphasized.

The road ahead won't be a pushover. Currently, Atlanta United sits 13th in the Eastern Conference with 16 points, four positions below the playoff line, and coming from five consecutive losses at home and just one win in the last eleven matches. However, with 18 games remaining in the Regular Season and Leagues Cup coming up, the opportunity for a turnaround is very much alive.

"We have a talented team, we have more potential than we've shown," declared Lagerwey. "The underlying numbers support that. Hopefully, we'll reap the benefits in the second half of the season.”

The club will begin the search for a permanent head coach Tuesday, with a committee which will be steered by Lagerwey who will ultimately present the recommendation to club’s Owner & Chairman Arthur Blank. The ideal candidate will not only possess tactical acumen but also embody the core values of Atlanta United, exemplified by a relentless pursuit for success.

"We're looking for someone who can elicit the best performances from their best players," Lagerwey explained, "I think there's a huge element in MLS of being able to man-manage and to meet all the players where they are, and to be able to communicate effectively with them, both good news and bad news."

MLS experience will also be a factor, as navigating the league's salary cap structure is crucial to long-term success and Atlanta United’s ambitions as a club.

“Someone that has at least some familiarity with MLS is important in a coach going forward. It's still a very special league in terms of the salary cap, and I don't mean just in dollars but in terms of regulation,” Lagerwey added. “We don't need a coach that understands that perfectly, but we need to acknowledge that reality in terms of team building and what we're able to do short-term and long-term.”

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As the search for the permanent head coach begins, Lagerwey also expressed the club’s commitment to support Rob Valentino as interim and giving him the tools to succeed.

“I’m here to help support the analysts, the scouts, the talent evaluators,” said Lagerwey. “We’re a couple of weeks out from a summer transfer window where we have a chance to improve our team. What it comes down to now is can we simplify things a little bit, put everyone in the role that maximizes their skillset.”

Lagerwey acknowledged the club has had conversations with Mexican club Cruz Azul about a potential transfer for Designated Player (DP) and striker Giorgos Giakoumakis but made it clear that nothing has been finalized. The club continues to be committed to strengthening a successful team and with the three DPs slots filled, the club will look to continue to build upon the players in the current roster.

“We set lofty goals for ourselves like finishing in the top four in the [Eastern Conference], advancing in the Leagues Cup and winning the first Playoff series,” Lagerwey continued. “Those goals haven't changed. But now we need to hopefully go forward with some discipline, some structure, and some determination and understand that nothing is going to be given to us.”

If we reach those goals, we'll continue this path. And if we don't, then we'll have to go back and start again."

With the FIFA international break next weekend, Atlanta United returns to MLS action June 15 when they host the Houston Dynamo at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The club will play 10 matches in 5 weeks, including the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals, before hosting D.C. United and Santos Laguna for Leagues Cup.

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