Atlanta United boss Gonzalo Pineda has been under fire from some of the Five Stripes' supporters following his team's first-round MLS Cup playoffs exit to Columbus Crew.
Atlanta United made strides in 2023. In the back-end of the season, more specifically. The likes of Young player of the Year Thiago Almada and Newcomer of the Year Giorgos Giakoumakis were in sync, often linking up to propel Atlanta to victory.
There's been improvement over the course of the season, but could there possibly be a better fit out there to lead the Five Stripes on the touchline with Pineda's contract running out after the 2024 season?
Atlanta losing their edge in the playoffs
Pineda took over late in the 2021 season and has amassed a 35-25-32 record, and a good chunk of those losses can be attributed to an injury-ridden 2022 campaign that saw Atlanta lose Brad Guzan and Miles Robinson to long-term injuries and finish in 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings.
With Pineda at the helm during the 2021 postseason, Atlanta fell in the first round against New York City FC 2-0, who went on to win MLS Cup later that year. Pineda deserves a free pass in this sense because he had just taken over as head coach in the middle of the season and still kept them in a strong position leading up to the playoffs.
However, Atlanta encountered the same problems this time around, as they were unable to make it past the first round -- with a squad that was revamped in the summer transfer window and not really having many injury problems to deal with. Although Columbus are an excellent side that could go on to win MLS Cup, Atlanta should've put up a better fight in game one and early on in game three.
Over-reliance on Thiago Almada
Every great coach relies on their best players to perform at their expected levels, but Atlanta United struggled when Almada wasn't on the field in 2023.
For example, in game one against Columbus, Almada was unavailable for selection due to picking up a second yellow card and being sent off in his team's Decision Day contest against FC Cincinnati. In game one, without their #10, Atlanta mustered one shot and an xG of just 0.07.
Game one isn't the only time this has happened, either. There have been a few games during the regular season when Almada was either injured or with the Argentina national team, and the Five Stripes had absolutely zero ideas when trying to break teams down. Sure, they may have had lots of possession, but it didn't amount to much.
In Atlanta's opening day 2-1 triumph over San Jose Earthquakes, Almada's incredible last-gasp brace stole the three points for the Five Stripes. For most of the game, they were unable to break down San Jose after they went ahead early on.
As stated previously, coaches across all team sports depend on their star players to show up each and every time to get positive results. But when your star player is unavailable, or they're playing but just having an off-game, great coaches step up to the task and make adjustments to give their teams a chance at winning.
That's what separates good coaches from great coaches, and unfortunately for Pineda at this moment in time, he falls in that category of just 'good.' Most of the time, Pineda's starting lineups are pretty spot on, but he fails to make adjustments when needed, often leaving his team exposed and out of games before its too late.
In his defense, he did switch to a back-three system over the summer when Atlanta continue to concede goal after goal, but a month or so later he changed back to his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation in preparation for the playoffs. In game one against Columbus, Pineda altered the entire formation by reverting back to a back-three seemingly because Almada was suspended.
That is not the sign of a championship-caliber team, even if he was trying to play the long game and get to penalty shootouts. Great teams and coaches don't change their entire setup due to one player's availability; They adapt and overcome those challenges without compromising the way they want to play and go about things.
Inability to improve the defense
Atlanta boasted one of the top attacking units in MLS in 2023. Atlanta scored 66 goals across 34 regular season games, second most in MLS behind their first round opposition, Columbus Crew. That tally is the second most goals they've ever scored in a campaign behind the 2017 and 2018 seasons, when they notched 70 goals in back-to-back years.
There's no denying that Atlanta have returned to their entertaining, scoring-goals-for-fun days that they previously embarked on in their first two seasons in MLS. The difference, though, has been the defense. With Gerardo 'Tata' Martino on the touchline, if Atlanta weren't blowing their opponents out of the water, they were outscoring them in high-octane affairs with score lines in their favor such as 3-2 or 4-3.
This term, defensive errors have plagued the Five Stripes, even more so late lapses in concentration on the defensive end that have cost them three points. From an overarching perspective, Atlanta has conceded 53 goals in 2023 with Guzan and Robinson in the team compared to 54 goals conceded in 2022 when both figures missed most of the campaign.
One could make the argument that Atlanta concedes so many goals due to the way they're setup with a high line and trying to impose their will on opponents. But even then, there are plenty of other teams around the league with a similar philosophy that haven't conceded nearly as many goals as Atlanta did.
Early on in the campaign, Atlanta were seconds away from leaving BMO Field with three huge points against Toronto FC before Brandon Servania canceled out Machop Chol's would-be winning goal in the 94th minute.
In late May against New England Revolution at home, backup forward Miguel Berry put Atlanta head 3-2 in the 87th minute with one of the best individual goals of the season. However, Carles Gil equalized in the 93rd minute to steal a point for the Revs, beating Brad Guzan at his near post.
When Atlanta has conceded a late goal, or even a goal off a defensive error, Pineda has painted a pretty clear picture that everyone could already see. The team shoots itself in the foot by committing unnecessary fouls in dangerous areas, giving away loose passes or even things like two players marking the same player, leaving another player all alone for a free shot on goal.
The problem is Pineda has become a broken record after games when these errors have occurred, often saying the same thing but restating it in different words.
"Leaking goals has been our achilles heel all season and one thing we definitely have to take look at and how we can solidify that," Pineda said after the game three defeat to Columbus Crew. At some point, those defense errors have to be stomped out. But they simply haven't, a sign that either Pineda hasn't been able to right the ship in that regard, or that Guzan and Robinson maybe aren't the solid players that we've become accustomed to seeing in the past.
Pineda isn't a bad coach by any means. After all, taking on the Atlanta job was a huge challenge from the get-go in his first ever gig as a head coach. He hasn't done terribly, but with the players in Atlanta's ranks (more specifically up front), the Five Stripes should be aiming higher than two first round exits in three years.
While there have been some good moments here and there with Pineda at helm, Atlanta often finds themselves without answers and Pineda being out-coached against the top teams in MLS. The Five Stripes' front office may have to make a tough decision regarding their head coach to ultimately get back to MLS Cup winning ways ahead of the 2024 campaign.
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