Sometimes you have to meet your foil and be completely embarrassed by them to truly understand and fix your core weaknesses. For Atlanta United, that foil came in the form of a disciplined and selfless team from Austin FC who completely embarrassed Atlanta in front of their home fans. Unlike the disjointed, individual-dominated product Atlanta constantly trots down the court, Austin reminded Atlanta fans what it’s like to have a clear philosophy and a group of teammates who can function as a unit. They were remarkably effective in their system and laid bare the lack of discipline, mental weakness, and general lack of cohesion in Atlanta that had hampered the development of any kind of real system. As many have correctly assumed, it is a collection of individuals who share a field together. They are not a team.
After the match, the players and the staff held a meeting of almost two hours in the locker room away from the cameras and the microphones of the media. There were inconvenient truths that needed to be told and the pain was finally great enough that any unease that accompanied harsh honesty paled in comparison to the deep collective shame that accompanied such a humiliating defeat.
When Gonzalo Pineda walked into the press conference, he was still beaming with the intensity of what had happened in the other room. With contrite humility, he accepted full responsibility for the loss, apologizing to fans and the media. With genuine certainty in his eyes, he promised he and the team would do better.
Immediately he was greeted with the question in everyone’s mind. “How would you do better?” »
“We’re going to put more desire into the things we do,” he said. “I want to start with better picks in the lineups and I’m going to make sure everyone is fighting. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Pineda initially declined to go into detail on how the club would fight better ahead of the next game, but he shared that he has already started that process. He admitted it’s no secret that defense has been a major problem in the club’s lack of results.
“Defense is very important in MLS, and it’s very important to be strong defensively first and from there we can build something. Part of my thinking is that I have to go back to the basics of football which is defending, running, showing passion, showing heart, also chaining my passes, being good technically, but maybe less emphasis on tactics and all that. Let’s just start fighting for each other.
Pineda suggested that at the start of the season, when the defense was a bit more solid, small problems were largely ignored because the team was creating chances and scoring goals. But now that the team is struggling defensively, those issues have become much more apparent. For Pineda, the goalkeeper and the defenders are not the only ones responsible for the defensive collapse. “Starting with Josef, how he runs, how he presses. I mean everyone, Luis Araujo, Thiago Almada, Marcelino Moreno. That’s how they make it very difficult for the opponent to find space to play balls behind. He wants to see a team-wide defensive effort to make it very difficult for opponents to score goals.
This process of getting the team to fight for each other probably started with the open forum in the locker room. According to Pineda, many players have taken the opportunity to express themselves freely. There are small things to be sorted out that no one was willing to talk about openly, so Pineda challenged his players and staff to finally face the issues. He believes that progress has already begun thanks to this honesty.
We got a glimpse of those internal conversations through Josef Martinez later that evening. Like Pineda, Martinez believes the problems have been ubiquitous since the start of the season. Martinez accused some players of not bringing enough energy to training and potentially not even caring about the team. He demanded professionalism from his teammates saying that mistakes happen but they have to own them and know the right way to approach being part of the team. Injuries are no excuse, he said, “we are professionals. They are no longer children. If you come here, you must know what to do. He then challenged the front office’s roster-building strategy, saying, “If you want to bring guys in, it’s because they want to play here, and it’s not because of business.”
Pineda also wanted to make sure injuries and young reserve players weren’t the ones seen as the problem.
“We have a group of kids who do everything I ask, like Caleb Wiley and McFadden. They do their best and that’s what I want to inspire the whole team to do their best every day. So I’m going to start with that, try to do better in every training session and every day we’re here, so I’m sure the next game will be very, very different.
Asked specifically about Rocco Ríos Novo, Pineda gave him resounding support saying, “I have a lot of confidence in Rocco. I think he is very good and especially on the ball he is fantastic for us. And yes he has no experience, yes he is very young but he can’t do anything about it.
For Pineda, the problem comes from a much deeper and more basic level than simple tactics.
We can’t do anything other than fight, confront each other, go back to the fundamentals of football. And that’s what I mean. The very basis of football is passing and receiving. If I don’t concentrate enough to make the right pass to my teammate who is five meters away from me, then I’m doing something wrong. So we can talk about tactics and where he’s positioned and how we attack and weak side…we can talk. After connecting my passes, we can talk about tactics. Once I’m good technically, we can talk about being good tactically. But before it is passion. Before all of that as a footballer you need the passion and the attitude and everything and again that starts with me because my message has to be as good as the players show that attitude and that passion that I have I gotta show them that.
It’s about merging that passion, that desire, that heart, that will to do whatever I have to do to win the game. Then, with the talent we have in attack, I think we will find ways to score goals. But before all of that, there has to be the other side, and that’s what I feel we miss the most in times like these.
This selfless ethos of passion, desire, heart, and the will to do whatever it takes to win the game is hugely appealing to longtime fans desperate to return to what feels like a distant golden age. The joy and fire of Atlanta United’s football was on full display, but on the visiting side. For long-time team member Josef Martinez, this may be the last chance to reforge the culture and identity that has made this team special, and which makes this reset all the more painful and necessary. If we can take anything away from this moment, perhaps this resounding defeat will mark the moment when the authenticity, passion and selfless unity of the Five Bands overcame the contrived, soulless individualism of the past few years.
It is my hope.