With the summer transfer window closed, Brian Schmetzer and Gonzalo Pineda find themselves in an unfamiliar situation.
They’re teetering on the MLS playoff bubble with fewer than a dozen games remaining. They won’t have a headlining player addition boost them. And they don’t have each other as part of the staff formulating the path to a successful season.
It’s not the ideal script for a national spotlight, but when Atlanta United hosts the Sounders for a matinee match Saturday on ABC, it’ll be the first between longtime friends and former colleagues in Schmetzer and Pineda. The latter left his post as Schmetzer’s assistant in August 2021 to take the head coaching position with Atlanta.
“Both of us would for sure say that we want the focus to be on our players, our teams, we don’t need the limelight, but it will be good to see him again,” Schmetzer said. “I’ve been watching [Pineda’s] results and he’s had a rash of injuries, probably worse than we have. So, he’s really in a tough spot, but that’s coaching in MLS. He’s got to get through those moments, and I know he’ll be fine in the long run, but he is a little bit of an exciting little storyline among two good friends.”
Pineda played 56 league matches for the Sounders and joined Schmetzer’s coaching staff in 2017. The midfielder has long been credited for his tactical creativity and used his skill to help the Sounders make three MLS Cup appearances, winning in 2019.
This challenging point in the season is the type that would energize a roundtable of Schmetzer, Pineda, former assistant Djimi Traore and current Sounders assistants Preki and Tom Dutra, the club director of goalkeeping.
The Sounders have utilized the summer transfer window to acquire players like Kelvin Leerdam (2017), Victor Rodriguez (2017), Raul Ruidiaz (2018) and Brad Smith (2018) during Pineda’s stint in Seattle to make postseason runs — climbing from the bottom of the West in 2018.
“I’m facing the best coach in MLS, no question about it; I haven’t seen any other coach achieve what Brian has achieved,” Pineda said. “There are many, many things in terms of management, coaching, knowledge of the game that I took from Brian already. Now, it’s trying to apply that in this tough moment that we are facing in Atlanta because of the results. I’m trying to put everything together.”
In his first full season, Pineda has dealt with season-ending injuries to stars in goalkeeper Brad Guzan, centerback Miles Robinson and former Sounders midfielder Ozzie Alonso. But nearly the entire roster has dealt with an ailment that caused them to miss multiple games, putting Atlanta (6-9-7) four points outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture at 12th place.
ATLUTD is winless in their past three games. The club made minor player moves this week and will rely on veterans like striker Josef Martínez and midfielders Marcelino Moreno and Thiago Almada to help spark a turnaround.
Due to the offseason acquisition of designated player Albert Rusnak for the eventual successful CONCACAF Champions League run, the Sounders didn’t have room to make any summer signings. Instead, Schmetzer has rotated five players to pair with Rusnak in the midfield in place of the injured Joao Paulo, a 2021 league MVP finalist.
The Sounders (10-11-2) were also without Ruidiaz (hamstring), which partly explains why they are entering Saturday’s game on a three-game road losing streak. Seattle is tied with Portland for the seventh and final playoff spot — the first tiebreaker of overall total wins giving the Sounders the edge.
Aside from Joao Paulo (ACL) and the emerging Obed Vargas (back), the Sounders are relatively healthy. Ruidiaz returned Tuesday from a hamstring injury, subbing on in the second half of Seattle’s 1-0 win against FC Dallas at Lumen Field. His availability for selection caps a roster most coaches scramble for with Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris also in the attack and All-Stars Cristian Roldan, Yeimar Gomez Andrade and Nouhou as part of the defending.
“What I’m looking for from our team is some consistency. We’ve been up, down, up, down, up, down,” Schmetzer said. “That’s maybe normal because of our circumstance and some of those issues. But going into the playoffs, if we can get there, we have to be more consistent.”
Despite the differences in success, Pineda’s playing style does resemble Schmetzer’s in a preference to playing from the back. In scouting each other, Pineda not only has an advantage in knowing Schmetzer’s tendencies but those of Roldan and keeper Stefan Frei. Both are former teammates, Pineda also rooming with Roldan on road trips.
Schmetzer invited Pineda to the Sounders’ hotel to reminisce with everyone, although none has lost touch the past year.
“I wish him the very best in every other game besides this next one,” Roldan said.