Schmetzer and Gonzo Cover Photo

When the Seattle Sounders visit Atlanta United FC on Saturday (12:08 p.m. PT; ABC, ESPN Deportes, 93.3 KJR FM, El Rey 1360AM) in a massive contest on national television, the biggest headline will inevitably be the coaching matchup between Brian Schmetzer and his former assistant coach Gonzalo Pineda.

It’s no surprise, though, that two of the humblest managers in the league would rather divert attention from themselves, despite understanding just how compelling the match will be.

“There is a lot of media attention between Gonzo and I,” said Schmetzer. “Both of us would for sure say that we want the focus to be on our players, on our teams. We don’t need the limelight, but it will be good to see him again, it will be good to catch up.”

Pineda is a former Mexico international and Liga MX legend, who played his final two professional seasons in Seattle under then-assistant coach Schmetzer. Pineda scored four times and added nine assists in 56 matches and helped the Sounders win their only Supporters’ Shield in 2014 before retiring at the end of the 2015 season.

He spent one season as a broadcaster for Univision before returning to Seattle as an assistant under newly promoted Head Coach Schmetzer. Pineda then spent four and a half years with the Sounders, helping the club win MLS Cup 2019 and reach two more league finals.

Pineda success in Seattle led to his first head coaching job at Atlanta United last summer, and he’s still employing what he learned from Schmetzer today.

“I’m facing the best coach in MLS,” Pineda said of his former mentor. “No question about it. I haven’t seen any other coach achieve what Brian has achieved, and me working closely with him for four and a half years, I know why he’s achieved that many things.

“He’s a very experienced coach who understands that there’s a person behind the player,” he continued. “He understands there’s a human being, he understands if there’s problems in the family. He knows how to manage and how to pull certain strings. He analyzes very deeply what types of players he has, and then he pulls the right strings on each player to get the best out of each player.”

Schmetzer and Pineda still have a strong relationship. They talk on the phone and text every now and then, and Schmetzer said he would invite Pineda to the Sounders’ team hotel in Atlanta a night or two before the match on Saturday. Pineda is not only close with the coaching staff, but also many of the players. No one in the league has a better understanding of the Sounders’ team dynamic more than Pineda.

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He was teammates with Stefan Frei and Cristian Roldan in 2015, with his influence on the latter a major stepping-stone in Roldan’s development in his rookie season. Pineda also played with current Sounders assistant Andy Rose, who Schmetzer coincidentally hired as a replacement for Pineda and other former longtime assistant Djimi Traoré.

“When I was his assistant, I was learning a lot from Brian,” said Pineda. “But it wasn’t just him and I, it was Djimi Traoré, Preki and Tommy Dutra. The culture that he created in that coaching staff that we were part of was that everybody could participate, everyone is able to give his opinion. Djimi Traoré has a big resume, Preki has a big resume. We were all trying to help Brian.”

Despite their rapport, Schmetzer and Pineda are also fiercely competitive, and their respective teams are in great need of three points as the season nears its conclusion. The Sounders sit just above the playoff line, ahead of the rival Portland Timbers on a total wins tiebreaker, while Atlanta is in 12th in the East but just four points back from a postseason spot.

Both coaches know they’re going to get each other’s best shot on Saturday, which in a way is a sign of ultimate respect. The sensei and the student going at it, head-to-head, for 90 minutes.

“I love Gonzo,” said Schmetzer. “He’s a very tactical coach. He’s very well organized…He’s had a rash of injuries probably worse than we have, he’s really in a tough spot. But that’s coaching in MLS, and he’s got to get through those moments. I know he’ll be fine in the long run, but it certainly is a little exciting storyline among two good friends.”

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