These are just a few words Atlanta United players used to describe their head coach after the 2021 season concluded. Gonzalo Pineda, the 39-year-old from Mexico City, became the club’s new head coach on August 12, 2021.
Even though he arrived in the thick of the season, Pineda set his culture at the club immediately. From the date of his hiring, Atlanta went 10-3-3, which propelled the team up the Eastern Conference table and qualified them for a spot in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. He instilled a winning culture using a philosophy that blends MLS experience, a global perspective and inclusivity.
“I think we are the team that scored the most points since August,” midfielder Jürgen Damm said. “That speaks of the connection he made with the group, his philosophy, that he knows how to manage a large institution such as Atlanta and that he also knew how to implement his style of play so that Atlanta could win and be in the playoffs.”
Atlanta is Pineda’s first head coaching job, but he entered the role with a wealth of experience, both as a coach and player. He was part of the Seattle Sounders coaching staff for five seasons, helping the club reach the MLS Cup three times and win it all in 2019. He considers Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer a mentor and the biggest influence on his coaching career.
Prior to becoming a coach, Pineda played on a profesional level. He spent 11 seasons in Liga MX, two in MLS with the Sounders and made 45 appearances for the Mexico national team.
“He knows players personally, he knows these teams that we’re playing, what he can expect from them,” defender Brooks Lennon said. “So, I think the main thing from Gonzalo is his experience coming in, and I thought he did a great job in that transition to get us into the playoffs.”
Pineda’s nickname is “El Profe,” which translates to “The Teacher” or “The Professor.” This cerebral quality comes across in interviews and from the portions of training sessions open to media. On the pitch, the head coach is didactic, taking time to explain a concept or direction. Players see him as a teacher, a leader who can help them understand the nuances of the game.
Off the pitch, Pineda is contemplative. He’s a good speaker, delivering answers in clear, fluent English then turning around and offering to answer also in his native Spanish. He refers often to the value of his own personal reflection. Whether it’s after a win or loss, he dedicates time to review what worked well, what didn’t and how he can do better.
“He’s brought comfort,” forward Jackson Conway said. “The way he coaches, he’s very upbeat. If you mess up, it’s okay, you can learn something new. You can always go to him and talk to him about it.”
Pineda’s tactics display his instructive quality. When he arrived to Atlanta United, his goal was to be consistent with the lineup. However, over time, Pineda proved to be adaptable. He was creative with formations, especially when players needed to miss games here and there for rest or international playing duties. When the club was without striker Josef Martínez for a few games, Pineda was flexible and forthright about implementing a false nine scheme.
“It was never about overcomplicating the system, it was never about making things too difficult for guys, especially when you don’t have a lot of time to train because of the change in the middle of the season,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said.
The head coach’s strategy is clearly focused on the attack, which falls in line with the club's strength and identity. Atlanta United was a club designed to promote fast play and lots of goal scoring. Pineda himself wants his team to play this way. He stresses the importance of creating chances and clinical finishing.
"I think he’s a young strategist, but with a very defined stamp,” midfielder Ronald Hernández said. “He likes the ball, he wants to have it all the time when he doesn't have it, he wants to press, he wants to go for it.”
Another important part of his coaching philosophy is how much Pineda cares for his players. He’s a players-first coach and is authentic in his desire to get to know players on a personal level. His family-oriented values present a humble outlook and gives the professional athletes on his team an important example.
“Every single day at the beginning of training, he just lets us know how blessed we are to be doing what we do, and I think that right there can describe Gonzalo,” Lennon said. “He takes everyday as a blessing to be able to go out into these beautiful facilities and play the game that we love and fight for the badge and for the fans.”
That personal touch showed up during the season when managing Martínez on his way back from injury. At points during the season, Pineda said that while as a coach he cares for Martínez’s physical condition, he also cares about the person and Martínez’s mental health. As a result, Pineda was proactive and made efforts to prevent the striker from being overloaded physically or mentally.
Pineda injected his personal touch in a variety of other ways. There was the first practice open to supporters – an idea Pineda brought forth himself, just like the birthday cake after practice tradition. Sometimes once training is over, the head coach hangs around the pitch, chatting with his players – not always about soccer necessarily.
“Every single guy in that locker room is ready to fight for a guy like him,” Lennon said.
When the 2021 season concluded with the loss to eventual MLS Cup champion New York City FC, the team was disappointed. Atlanta United has high expectations. The club’s goal is to compete for trophies, so the first round exit in the MLS Cup Playoffs was frustrating.
However, even with its disappointing result, the 2021 season had many positive takeaways. One of those silver linings was Pineda. His arrival to Atlanta came late in the season. Pineda’s first match managing the club was against Nashville on Aug. 28, just 10 weeks prior to Decision Day on Nov. 7.
So, with the preseason starting next week, a full year with his players about to begin, Atlanta fans will really get a chance to see where Pineda can take this team.
“He helped us a lot,” defender Alan Franco said. “And the truth is that next year we will have much more to give.”
Atlanta United kicks off the 2022 season on Feb. 27 against Sporting Kansas City at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Click here to view tickets.