Less than 24 hours from the conclusion of its 2021 season, Atlanta United already had something new to look forward to:
February 27, 2022.
That’s the date Atlanta United opens the 2022 MLS regular season. The club will face Sporting Kansas City at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in a match that will be nationally televised.
Head coach Gonzalo Pineda and his players certainly have the date circled on their calendars. It comes just 11 weeks from the team’s loss on Sunday in Round One of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. Atlanta United’s early exit was a tough pill to swallow for a club that has high standards of winning trophies.
“This is a franchise and club that should be in the playoffs every single season and pushing to win a trophy, so I think us coming up short tonight of our ultimate goal of lifting a trophy is really tough and it hurts,” defender Brooks Lennon said after the match.
While the result on a micro level was disappointing, viewed from a wide lens the 2021 team showed promise that should carry forward into next season. The club had a massive shift halfway through 2021 when it decided to make a change and hire Pineda.
From May 23 until early August, the club didn’t win a single match. Stuck with just two wins as late in the season as Aug. 7, the chances of even qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs seemed unlikely.
“There’s a lot of frustration and disappointment in the locker room right now,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said after Sunday’s match. “But I think when you step back and you look at where we were, where we’ve come from, how we’ve gotten here, there’s certainly a base to build upon going into next season.”
The team’s turnaround started on Aug. 7 when it broke a 12-match winless streak. Led by interim head Rob Valentino, the club went on to win three more matches, which included two shutouts. The 12 points gained during that stretch was massive in the team’s second-half rise. Playoffs started to feel more like an achievable possibility.
“I would say that the biggest challenge was to change the mentality of the team, they were a little bit down,” Pineda said. “Rob did a great job of balancing that mindset.”
The four-game winning streak moved the club up to 6-6-9. Then, Pineda arrived to make the final push. Atlanta’s new head coach took over managing duties after the 2-1 victory over D.C. United on Aug. 21. Pineda’s first match managing the club was against Nashville on Aug. 28, just 10 weeks away from Decision Day on Nov. 7.
“There is no timeframe to say ‘This is the time I need to implement my tactics,’ sometimes that happens naturally,” Pineda said. “I feel that we saw a little bit of what I want, but there are things we need to improve.”
Even with such little time, Pineda was able to get his new team to play well. During the 14 games he managed for Atlanta United in 2021, the club posted a winning record, going 7-4-3. He picked up his first-ever win as a head coach with a 3-0 shutout against Orlando City on Sept. 10.
Since Aug. 12, the day the club announced hiring Pineda, no other team earned more points in the conference than Atlanta United. Pineda led the team to a perfect three-game homestand in September. With those results, the team picked up nine valuable points late in the season, all against Eastern Conference opponents.
“We need to build with Gonzalo and his staff,” Lennon said. “We have all the intangibles, we just need to get together and play together as a team and spend a whole offseason together.”
The 2022 MLS opener is 11 weeks away, and the team should enter a new season with stability and a strong sense of identity. The flashes of success the team had in the latter part of 2021 show a young squad with potential that, perhaps with a full season, Pineda can further develop.
“I feel that with a full preseason, having everyone fit and ready to go, I think we can improve a lot,” Pineda said.
Pineda pointed to the Philadelphia match as an important learning experience. Going into that match, the team had just won three straight. Some were calling Atlanta a dangerous team, the phrase “you wouldn’t want to see them in the playoffs” becoming a recurring talking point.
But on Sept. 25, the team didn’t play up to the level. Atlanta lost 1-0 in a disjointed performance that required Guzan to make eight saves, tying a career high.
“Those lessons for me are going to help us in the future,” Pineda said.
The match late in the season against Philadelphia Union showed Pineda that his team still needs time to mature. With one of the youngest rosters in MLS, the entire 2021 season could be a considered a learning lesson -- an important one for developing a young roster within a franchise that has trophies and championships in mind.
“Going into next year, we’ll have a good opportunity to be a good team,” Lennon said.