By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 28, 2016) US Soccer Players – Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s biggest claim to fame is his stint as the coach of one of the world’s greatest soccer clubs, FC Barcelona. He recently ended a stint as head coach of his native Argentina, who he took to back-to-back Copa America finals. Prior to his move to Spain, he earned a reputation as a smart, tactically-adept boss who turned around Newell’s Old Boys in the Argentine Primera. His coaching philosophy is a direct result of his time working under that famous proponent of high-pressure, ultra-attacking soccer Marcelo Bielsa.
That resume is just part of what Martino brings with him to the job as the first head coach in the history of Atlanta United FC. The MLS expansion team snagged a whale in Martino. His international profile brings significant attention to a team that has yet to kick a ball. Atlanta United has already set a standard with word that they’ve sold 22,000 season tickets ahead of next season. They’ll need to raise that standard on the field if they’re going to keep the home crowd engaged.
According to technical director Carlos Bocanegra, it was Martino who reached out to Atlanta United, not the other way around. Some of that is down to circumstance. The coach had just extricated himself from the mess that is the Argentina Football Association. It also speaks to the rising profile of Major League Soccer and the willingness of Martino to take on a significant challenge. This could be groundbreaking for a league that has long occupied a weak sister position in the hierarchy of the world’s game. The money and the prestige of MLS rarely made it worth the while of coaches with options to pick North America.
Atlanta United deserves ample credit for completing the deal. That holds even if it was Martino himself who initiated interest. The club could have taken the easy route and signed up a manager who knows the ins and outs of MLS. That safe choice wouldn’t be as likely to move the needle. There’s a large risk here for United. Martino isn’t initiated into MLS’s strange ways. That’s something that could impede the club’s ability to put out a winner in the first year. Atlanta will undoubtedly work to surround Martino with people who understand the various lists and player designations.
The new team has already signed up a handful of players for their debut roster, including Trinidad & Tobago striker Kenwyne Jones and young Argentinian attacker Hector Villalba. Martino’s rep is for playing high pressure, high tempo soccer. That’s the current trend in world soccer. It’s a philosophy that already has multiple proponents around MLS.
There’s an additional knock-on effect of Martino’s hiring that bears mention. It might be something the club took into account when they chose to go with him. It’s Martino as recruiter. Both with the first team and the academy, Martino is his own brand. It’s a trusted brand with strong connections to Argentina and Spain. That adds to United’s brand, especially when competing for youth players with options. It’s that homegrown category where Martino could be giving Atlanta an edge.
Atlanta United knows that Martino faces a steep learning curve in Major League Soccer. They know that bringing him in runs counter to the conventional wisdom about setting up an immediate winner. Expansion franchises in MLS are notorious to talking a good game about “building an identity” and establishing an entertaining philosophy. They rarely remain patient enough to do those things. Initial enthusiasm can wane. Club execs get impatient when winning doesn’t follow all of the grandiose talk.
Will Atlanta be different? Certainly if they start by winning. Short of that, Atlanta really does seem committed to doing something unique, within a soccer environment that is already unique its own right. Martino may not know what that means through experience yet. Still, every report about the sequence of events that led to his hiring indicates he’s fully game to take on the challenge that starting from scratch presents.
Hiring Gerardo Martino is a big step for Atlanta United, for MLS, and for the coach himself. Given time, he might spark something of a shift in the thinking of MLS clubs when it comes to recruiting coaches. Salary caps and parity only provide so many avenues for teams to take chances and flex some financial muscle. The head coach position is one of those avenues. It’s intriguing to see an ambitious expansion side take a stroll down it.
If Atlanta United doesn’t panic. If Martino gets a chance to institute his philosophy. If…. Atlanta United will be a fun team to watch in 2017 and beyond.
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