By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 14, 2018) US Soccer Players - He came, he saw, he conquered, he left. From the moment he joined Atlanta United, Gerardo “Tata” Martino was already one of the biggest names ever to coach in Major League Soccer. Some insiders quietly wondered, however, whether he’d get a handle on the league’s myriad quirks, or wind up a curiosity, another asterisked figure in MLS history like Carlos Alberto Parreira or Carlos Queiroz.
After Atlanta’s triumph in the 2018 MLS Cup, we can now safely rank Tata as MLS’s most successful coaching import ever.
When he took the job, the genial Argentinean brought experience, legitimacy, and perhaps just as importantly, top South American talent to the expansion club. Arriving with an illustrious track record marked by stints in charge of FC Barcelona and the Argentine national team, he nonetheless rolled up his sleeves and plunged full-bore into the unique challenge of MLS.
Now he exits a champion, further strengthening both the Atlanta project and his own reputation. Tata, who will reportedly become Mexico’s next coach, has raised the bar like so many other aspects of this impressive organization.
“The truth is that if I had to choose a way to leave somewhere, this is the best,” he said amid Saturday’s delirious champagne- and beer-soaked celebrations at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, measured and thoughtful as usual. “Especially because I made a decision and communicated it beforehand and I just had to wait for the final result. And the final result could’ve been losing the title and not winning it. So this is the way I like to leave.”
So what can we learn from this short but epochal chapter in North American coaching annals? Here’s a few lessons to ponder from Martino’s comet-like tenure on these shores.
Global expertise matters
Not so long ago it was firmly entrenched MLS conventional wisdom that coaches from overseas with no prior experience of the league and wider American soccer scene were generally doomed to fail here. Martino and United have blown that cliche to smithereens. Part of that is the club’s savvy structure and support to set up him for success. Another is the sheer competence of a coach with obvious expertise at the highest levels. He’d already been a game-changer from the start for his ability to recruit players from Latin America on reputation alone.
To hear Atlanta’s American contingent, particularly those who’ve spent large chunks of their careers in MLS, sing his praises is highly revealing. It's also perhaps an indirect indictment of this country’s still-limited soccer infrastructure.
“I've kind of become more of a thinking player than a running player,” veteran midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said in the runup to MLS Cup. “I think I was always a run-and-tackle kind of guy, but it's more about reading my teammates, covering their backs, allowing the special players to do their thing. His management and style is at times uncompromising. But I think it's always best for the team. His ability to sit down after having never coached in the MLS and to break down a team you've played against a million times, and he tells you something you've never seen before.”
Division of labor
Atlanta United made things straightforward for their head coach by not asking him to be anything else. In a league where coaches often add to their wages and clout by tacking on front-office duties, Martino was content to focus on leading the first team while Darren Eales, Carlos Bocanegra, and others handled executive roles.
That included a dogged approach to analyzing, then overcoming the tactical challenges he encountered in his two years on MLS sidelines. This year’s championship is proof of concept for him and the organization.
“What essentially happened to me here is that I went back to feeling like a coach,” Martino told reporters after the cup win. “Participating in the signing of players and assembling a team and giving them an identity and also seeing these soccer players grow over the last two years. Sometimes when you work at the highest levels, you sometimes feel that your contribution is not that important and you don’t feel that involved in the growth of the team. And this happened to me the same thing that happened at Newell’s [Old Boys]. I felt part of it, I felt happy and I felt I had an influence in the growth of the team and the growth of the players.”
Humility in high places
Hubris can rear its head in American soccer, with egos grown out of proportion to achievements. Given his past, it's hard to blame Martino had he arrived in MLS with some measure of arrogance. According to those he worked with, it’s precisely the opposite.
“The thing that probably stuck out to me the most is just how humble and how honest he is," Atlanta and USMNT fullback Greg Garza said last week. “Off the field, he’s a guy you can probably talk to about the game, or talk about anything with, and he’ll give you a straight answer, and tell you what he’s feeling or what he thinks about you on the dot. There’s nothing he hides. He’s the kind of person that can sit in the middle seat on the plane on travel days, and he doesn’t complain about it. He doesn’t want to make himself feel a bit more special than any of us.”
It goes a long way when the guy who’s coached Lionel Messi is the most grounded person in the room and open-minded enough to buy into the ATL project nearly from day one. Yes, the wealth and commitment flashed by club owner Arthur Blank was and is an attractive facet of the job, and a pivotal aspect of their success. For his part, Tata was eager to spread the praise around even on his way out of town.
“What gives me most satisfaction is the project that the club had and that they presented to me and I agreed to, having been able to bring it forward,” he said. “They gave me absolutely everything that a coach and technical staff needs. We have probably the best training facilities in all of MLS. We have the best team in MLS. Great soccer players have come. We have everything and we only worried about playing soccer and forming a team to play soccer and win. And so when the organization that contracts you practically doesn’t leave you any room to make excuses, it leaves you nothing but to do your best and win.”
It’s OK to move on
We’ve known for a while that the laws of nature are different for American-based coaches. That often manifests itself in Yanks marveling at the short leashes and twitchy trigger fingers abroad. This time it was a successful Martino leaving of his own accord to remind us that the equation can work both ways. He also showed that time is always of the essence.
“The contract was two years long, with an option for another two. But the agreement was for two years,” Martino told ESPN. “But it's also true that when you see a cycle has been completed and there's no way to sustain it, irregardless of a contract, you have to leave. What I’ve done here is complete my contract and then analyze if the conditions are right to repeat something similar. In that analysis, on a personal and professional level, I concluded it wasn’t prudent to continue with the club.”
The obstacles to working abroad have long vexed American players, and coaches even more so. That’s led to something of a glass ceiling that can lead to insularity. Many cling to “big jobs” in America, reacting instead of embracing the turnover and volatility of the craft. Then there's Tata Martino, a veteran coach who found the measure of MLS then walked away on his own terms.
More from Charles Boehm:
- The difficult road ahead for Gregg Berhalter
- Toronto FC’s arduous 2018
- The evolution of the MLS coaching carousel
- Growth, but in what direction? Pondering USL’s future
Photo by Andy Mead - ISIPhotos.com