Usually in my post match column I go over the events of the match from the day before and give my thoughts on the most important parts. Atlanta’s 2-1 win over D.C. — to extend their winning streak to four — was exciting and fun to watch, but I’m not going to talk about the match. Instead, I’m going to talk about something much more important to the club.
Like the majority of Atlanta United fans, I knew absolutely nothing about Rob Valentino when it was announced he’d take over as interim manager for Gabriel Heinze. The news of him taking the reins after the Argentine’s dismissal was a very small footnote at the time. Little did we know that the long-time assistant coach would be the most pivotal turning point of the Five Stripes’ season.
During his one-month, eight-match stint as interim he took Atlanta United from a team on the verge of crashing and burning to a side brimming with confidence and on the brink of pushing above the red playoff line.
While the results have clearly improved since Valentino has taken over, the club has transformed in almost every facet since that change in leadership. The mindset on the field, from both the collective and individual aspects, has been a night and day comparison to the short-lived Heinze era. It’s plainly obvious that Valentino’s biggest gift to the team has been his motivational skills. Every single player has improved their performance and attitude over the past month.
Two players who highlight this fact are Ezequiel Barco and Marcelino Moreno. The latter has struggled to adapt to MLS and to make a real impact on Atlanta United despite high expectations since arriving last summer. Valentino gave Moreno more attacking freedom to roam around the field and pick his spots to make that attacking impact that was sorely needed. It wasn’t a stroke of tactical genius from the interim manager, it was a simple idea to let the talented player go out on the field and do what he does. Barco has played for five different managers at Atlanta United. It could be realistically argued that none of those five have gotten Barco to perform at a consistently high and impactful level as Valentino has. Those results speak for themselves.
One aspect of Valentino’s approach that has earned him the pure adoration of the supporters and critics is his dedication to bringing Atlanta United back to the attacking ethos that was promised by Darren Eales way back at the beginning of the club’s arrival. Every manager that comes in says they’re going to attempt to play an attacking style of soccer, but Valentino put his money where is mouth is. Even at a fault sometimes he showed no intent on playing it safe even when that may have been the logical option to take. That’s the type of mentality Atlanta United was founded on and supporters will continue to demand. Rob deserves tremendous credit for introducing that mindset back into the team.
It’s not just the on-field facets that Valentino succeeded with. His attitude and mentality when speaking to the media must be commended. His honesty and authenticity when commenting about a match or his team’s performance was a breath of fresh air. When the majority of managers will give you a cliché or flat-out sugarcoat a bad performance, Rob said exactly what everyone who was watching the match was thinking. Even after a win during a tough stretch he was critical of the team’s attacking effectiveness while still being complimentary of their effort. This is the type of honesty we all desire from people in charge of running professional soccer teams.
While his time as this team’s head coach has come to an end, his impact on turning the season around from a results and morale standpoint will likely last well into the winter. If this team goes on to pull off something special, the first person to get credit will be Rob Valentino for inheriting a truly awful situation and turning it on its head. The ideal scenario whenever an interim manager is announced is that the fans will be calling for that person to be hired permanently because they’ve done such a good job. Very rarely does that ever happen, but if Valentino had gotten the job very few would’ve questioned it because of the outstanding work he’s done. The good news is that he’s not going far and should still have a big impact on the team.
Valentino ended his final post-match press conference on Saturday night by thanking the media and fans for their kind treatment. The sentiment is returned tenfold to you, Mr. Valentino. Thank you for your honesty, commitment to the Atlanta United way, and getting me to invest and care about this team again like I haven’t in quite a while. No matter what the future brings, you’ll be remembered fondly around these parts.