Exclusive - Former USMNT midfielder Maurice Edu believes Atlanta United's MLS Cup chances are greatly improved by having a full pre-season under Gonzalo Pineda.
Following an interim period under Rob Valentino, Pineda was appointed Gabriel Heinze's permanent successor in August. The Mexican has enjoyed an impressive 7-4-3 record so far, guiding the Five Stripes back into the Playoffs after a year out in 2020.
Since calling time on his playing career in 2017 - during which he represented the likes of Rangers, Toronto FC, and the Philadelphia Union, as well as picking up 46 senior caps for the US - Edu has taken up various roles within soccer media.
Since last season, once of those roles has been calling Atlanta United as an analyst for Bally Sports.
Picking an MLS Cup winner ahead of the season is obviously tough. But based on his experiences watching the team so far, Edu believes Atlanta United have what it takes, especially following Pineda's first full pre-season with the team.
"It’s hard to say. This is MLS. It’s not often that you call an MLS winner this early," Edu told 90min in an exclusive interview.
"But what I would say is that the pre-season was crucial for Gonzalo Pineda. He’s come into a team with a lot of moving pieces. I think Rob Valentino did a good job steadying the ship and bringing joy back to the club. Rob was a fan favorite, but also a favorite among the players. Him being part of the setup still is important.
"But more so for Gonzalo, he came and finished off the season relatively well. It’s not an easy task to take over a team midseason, to balance the personalities. You have a hungry Josef Martinez, I give this guy so much credit. The way he was able to bounce back after an ACL injury and score the goals that he did. I’m sure he’d say he didn’t feel 100 percent himself, but to still score the goals he did is incredible. Barco had a great season, Luiz Araujo was a good acquisition, George Campbell stepped up well in moments. There were a lot of positives.
"Now Gonzalo has had the chance to really delve into his team, work out what works best for him structurally, how he wants to set up tactically."
Edu then pointed to Atlanta United's offseason recruitment. The Five Stripes picked up Thiago Almada from Velez in the most expensive incoming transfer in MLS history, while they also added immense leadership, experience, and quality to the heart of their midfield with former Seattle Sounders and Minnesota United veteran Ozzie Alonso - a player who has worked closely with Pineda in the past.
"Thiago Almada is going to be a big player for them," the 35-year-old said. "But Ozzie Alonso could also play a big part in the heart of that midfield at times. He’s more of a true No.6 who can sit in front of that defense and protect them. He brings a lot of experience as well, so I think he’s another important acquisition."
Adding a sprinkle of caution to his optimism, Edu continued: "Are they talented enough to win MLS Cup? Yeah, I think so. When you have that front four, you always have that potential to score goals. When you still have Miles Robinson in the backline who has grown tremendously as a player, becoming more and more assured of himself. That always gives you a chance.
"Who knows if there will be more acquisitions but as a starting point, I think they have some good pieces. And I don’t want to sound like a broken record but having a pre-season under Gonzalo Pineda was going to be crucial. To just allow him a chance to tweak things, whereas in mid-season that’s always a gamble. Now, you have a little bit more time to try out different tactics and players, and establish a culture that you want this group to assume for the course of the season.
"It’s going to take a few different things, and one of those is a stroke of luck. But I think Atlanta United definitely have the pieces to go on and make a good run. It’s going to be a fun season."
Whether they win MLS Cup or not, one thing is for certain: Atlanta United's supporters will generate arguably the best atmosphere in Major League Soccer.
The Five Stripes hold each of the top 10 single-match attendance records in MLS history, while they were the only side in the league to average more than 50,000 per week in the two seasons prior to the global pandemic.
Edu had already experienced the full power of Mercedes-Benz Stadium back when Atlanta United beat the Portland Timbers 2-0 to win MLS Cup in 2018. Now getting to take in the atmosphere for every home match, he's been left in awe.
"The Atlanta United fanbase is incredible," Edu said. "I was fortunate enough to have been at Mercedes-Benz Stadium the year they won MLS Cup. 70,000 fans there, just seeing what that place looks like when it’s at full tilt. So I knew the potential.
"But this past year was incredible for me. Again, just being in that stadium and some of the games where you’re getting last-minute goals, like a Marcelino Moreno header. Just feeling the passion, hearing the roar, seeing the fans, and connecting with them as I’m getting in and out of the stadium. I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly.
"The next step now is calling a game when they’re winning MLS Cup. That’s the challenge and that’s the goal."
Atlanta United begin their 2022 campaign at home to Sporting Kansas City on Sunday.