Former Mexico player, Seattle assistant named Atlanta coach

ATLANTA (AP) — Former Mexican national team player Gonzalo Pineda was hired Thursday as head coach of Atlanta United and tasked with stabilizing a team that’s seen plenty of turnover at the coaching position.

Pineda’s first priority, however, is to gain medical clearance following his positive test this week for COVID-19.

Pineda, whose contract runs through 2024, replaces Gabriel Heinze, who was fired last month.

Interim coach Rob Valentino will remain on Pineda’s staff and coach the team for the next two games. Pineda, who is leaving his job as an assistant with the Seattle Sounders, is expected to join Atlanta United next week.

Pineda said he tested positive on Tuesday, delaying his move to Atlanta.

“I can not tell you enough how awkward the situation is for me, but it happens in this world,” Pineda said. “It’s probably a good reminder for everyone to take care of themselves and get vaccinated.”

Pineda said he is fully vaccinated. He said he has had Zoom meetings with his Atlanta players and Valentino “trying already to start new connections … and just handling the situation to the best of my abilities.”

Pineda is Atlanta’s fifth coach in a year, making him a crucial hire for team president Darren Eales.

“We have to get the next hire right,” Eales said after firing Heinze, who feuded with the team’s top player, Josef Martinez.

Martinez, who led Atlanta to the MLS title in 2018, had been told by Heinze to train away from the team. He has returned.

Pineda faces the challenge of guiding Atlanta back to the playoff race. Atlanta is 3-6-9 this season, 10th in the Eastern Conference and six points behind Columbus for the seventh and final playoff spot.

“We have confidence this team has what it takes to make a playoff run this season,” Eales said Thursday.

Liam Curran will remain on staff to coach goalkeepers and Pineda is adding Diego de la Torre, who recently served as head coach at Cafetaleros de Chiapas in Mexico.

Atlanta boosted its roster for a playoff run in the second half of the season by acquiring Luiz Araújo, the 25-year-old Brazilian forward, on a transfer from French club Lille this week.

Pineda said Atlanta has “a fantastic group of players” as well as the fan support and facilities needed for success.

“When you are offered Atlanta United, you go for it,” he said. “I just need to come in and try to settle down things.”

Pineda said he won’t try to make dramatic changes immediately. Asked what style he will bring to the team, he said, “First and foremost, passion.”

“Playing with passion, playing with intensity,” he said. “I want a team that represents the fans and that’s the connection I want to build around. … I want to play the same as the club has been trying to play, attacking-minded football, always being a team that creates more chances and better chances than the opponent.”

Pineda, 38, has coached on Seattle’s staff for five seasons, helping the Sounders to three MLS Cup appearances and the 2019 title. He played for Mexico in the 2006 World Cup. At the club level, he spent 11 seasons in Liga MX and two in MLS.

“He has a thorough understanding of MLS and has proven to be one of the top assistants in the league,” Eales said. “He is a great fit for our club from a cultural and technical perspective, and we’re excited to have a long-term commitment in place.”

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