Sometimes, you need to meet your foil and be utterly embarrassed by them to truly understand and address your core weaknesses. For Atlanta United, that foil came in the form of a disciplined and self-less Austin FC side that utterly embarrassed Atlanta in front of its home fans. Unlike the disjointed individual-dominated product Atlanta consistently trots onto the pitch, Austin reminded Atlanta fans what it looks like to have a clear philosophy and a group of teammates who are capable of operating as a unit. They were remarkably efficient in their system and laid bare Atlanta’s lack of discipline, mental weakness, and overall lack of cohesion that has hindered the development of any kind of real system. As many have correctly surmised, this is a collection of individuals who just so happen to share a field together. They are not a team.
After the match, the players and staff held a nearly two-hour meeting in the locker room away from the cameras and microphones of the media. There were inconvenient truths that needed to be said and the pain was finally great enough that any discomfort that came with harsh honesty paled in comparison to the deep collective shame that came with such a humbling defeat.
When Gonzalo Pineda entered the press conference, he still radiated with the intensity of what had transpired in the other room. With a contrite humility, he accepted full responsibility for the loss, apologizing to the fans and the media. With an earnest certainty in his eyes, he promised that he and the team will do better.
Immediately he was met by the question on everyone’s mind. “How would you do better?”
“We are going to put more desire into the things that we do,” he said. “I want to start with better choices in the line-ups and I’m going to make sure everybody fights. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Pineda declined to get into specifics initially about how the club would fight better leading up to the next match, but he shared that he has already begun that process. He admitted that it is no secret that the defense has been a major problem in the club’s lack of results.
“Defense is very important in MLS, and it is very important to be solid defensively first and from there we can build something. Part of my reflection is that I have to come back to the basics of football which is defend, run, show passion, show heart, also connecting my passes, being good technically, but probably less emphasis on tactics and all that. Let’s just start with fighting for each other.”
Pineda suggested that earlier in the season when the defense was a bit more solid the small issues were largely overlooked because the team was creating chances and scoring goals. But now that the team is struggling defensively, those issues have become a lot more overt. For Pineda, the goalkeeper and the defenders are not exclusively the blame for the defensive collapse. “Starting with Josef, how he runs, how he presses. I mean everyone, Luis Araujo, Thiago Almada, Marcelino Moreno. It’s how they make it very hard for the opposition to find space to play balls in behind.” He wants to see a team-wide defensive effort to make it very hard for opponents to score goals.
That process of getting the team to fight for each other likely began with the open forum in the locker room. According to Pineda, many of the players took the opportunity to express themselves freely. There are little things that need to be fixed that no one was willing to talk about openly, so Pineda challenged his players and staff to finally confront the problems. He believes that progress has already begun thanks to that honesty.
We got a glimpse into those internal conversations through Josef Martinez later in the evening. Like Pineda, Martinez believes the problems have been pervasive since the beginning of the season. Martinez accused some players of not bringing enough energy to training and potentially of not even caring about the team. He demanded professionalism from his teammates saying that mistakes happen but they need to own them and know the right way of approaching being part of the team. Injuries are no excuse, he said, “we are professional. These are not kids anymore. If you come here, you need to know what to do.” He went on to challenge the front office’s roster-building strategy saying, “if you want to bring in some guys, it is because they want to play here, and it is not because of business.”
Pineda also wanted to make sure that injuries and the young reserve players are not the ones seen as the problem.
“We have a bunch of kids that do everything I ask for, like Caleb Wiley and McFadden. They do their very very best and that’s what I want to inspire the whole team to do every day, their very very best. So I’m going to start with that, trying to do better every training session and every day we are there so I’m sure that next game we are going to look very very different.”
When asked specifically about Rocco Ríos Novo, Pineda was resoundingly supportive of him, saying, “I have a lot of faith in Rocco. I think he is very good and especially on the ball, he is fantastic for us. And yes he doesn’t have experience, yes he’s very young but there’s nothing he can do about that.”
For Pineda, the problem comes from a much deeper and more basic level than just the tactics.
We cannot do anything else more than fight, compete, come back to the very basics of football. And that’s what I want to say. The very basics of football is pass and reception. If I don’t concentrate enough to make the right pass to my teammate that is five yards away from me, then I’m doing something wrong. So then we can talk about tactics and where he’s positioned and how we attack and weak side...we can talk. After I connect my passes we can talk about tactics. After I’m good technically, we can talk about being good tactically. But before that is the passion. Before all of that, as a footballer, has to come the passion and the attitude and everything, and again that starts with me because my message has to be such as good as the players show that attitude and that passion that I have I have to show them that.
It's about merging that passion, desire, the heart, the willingness to do everything I have to do to win the game. Then with the talent we have up front, I think we’re going to find ways to score goals. But before all of that it has to come the other part, and that’s what I feel we are lacking more in these moments.”
That selfless ethos of passion, desire, heart, and willingness to do everything possible to win the game is tantalizingly appealing for long-time fans desperate to return to what feels like a distant golden age. The joy and fire of Atlanta United football were on full display but by the visiting side. For long-time team member Josef Martinez, this may be the last chance to reforge the culture and identity that made this team special, and that makes this reset that much more painful and necessary. If we can take anything from this moment, perhaps, this resounding defeat will mark the moment authenticity, passion, and self-less unity of the Five Stripes conquered the artificial, soulless individualism of the last few years.
That is my hope.