Tata Martino And The Gamble of A Lifetime

By Danny Perez

No hacía falta prolongar algo que estaba muerto desde hacía tiempo. No disfruté entrenando al Barça, pero creo que no he disfrutado en ningún lado”.

That was Tata Martino at the end of his tenure coaching Barcelona.  If you need to brush up on your Spanish, he was describing his conscious uncoupling from the Catalan giants. Like a party to a loveless marriage, Martino put it bluntly, “there was no need to extend something that had been dead for quite some time. I didn’t enjoy coaching Barça, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it [that situation] anywhere.”  Managing FC Barcelona, with all that it entails, the unrelenting pressure to win – and win a certain way – and the inescapable spotlight, is no easy task.  Stepping in the shadow of a beloved figure like Tito Vilanova did not make things easier.

The chance to coach one of the biggest teams in the world should be the highlight of one’s managerial career.  But things don’t always go as planned.  Just ask David Moyes.  

Still, prior to the Barcelona experience, Tata Martino’s star was on the ascendency.  After a successful career in Paraguay and in his native Argentina, Martino took his talents to Barcelona.  The journey started with promise but ended in disaster.  It was a failure by any measure; he will be the first to admit it.  Following his first and only European experience few expected him to land another high profile job, but he got the nod to coach the Argentina national team.  That too ended in disappointment as Chile beat Argentina in a Copa America final that will be remembered for Messi’s penalty miss – and tears – which would seal a third straight final loss with his national team.  Martino resigned from the post less than two weeks later.  

For all the talk about soccer being America’s sport of the future, the future is very much now.  And Martino finds himself trying to build something from nothing in a city not many associate with soccer: Atlanta.  The city where Bobby Cox built the Braves into a baseball powerhouse and the Falcons rule the other football, Atlanta is the gamble of a lifetime for a man used to ecosystems that live and breathe fútbol.  Yet Tata Martino is in Atlanta because that’s exactly where he wants to be.

The funny thing about failure is that, often, it gives rise to new beginnings.  Atlanta’s ambitious plan aimed at bucking the trend of underwhelming opening seasons by MLS expansion clubs and Martino’s bold move Stateside create an exciting combination, at a time when MLS viewership is at an all time high.  It’s up to MLS to seize the opportunity.  Martino’s hiring is the kind that can revolutionize soccer where it matters most to fans: on the pitch.  In the process, it could change soccer culture in the United States forever.

The Beckham experiment brought worldwide attention to a young league seen by Europeans and South Americans as a retirement league for iconic figures entering the twilight of their careers.  From Carlos ‘el Pibe’ Valderrama, Youri Djorkaeff, Roberto Donadoni, and Marco ‘el Diablo’ Etcheverry in the early days of MLS to the next crop of aging stars which followed Beckham’s signing, Thierry Henry, Torsten Frings, Andrea Pirlo, Ashley Cole and Didier Drogba.  

Yeah, but Drogba could still crush defenders in the MLS? And he did but that’s not the point.  

Though the league has tried, at times unsuccessfully, to attract younger international stars the reality is MLS is still a hard sell for some players who aren’t convinced the standard of play is high enough to guarantee them future call-ups to their national teams.  And if they do come, like Sebastian Giovinco, chances are they’ll be snubbed.  “It’s normal that if you choose to go and play there then you can pay the consequences in footballing terms.” That was then-Italy coach Antonio Conte on his reasons for Giovinco’s exclusion from his Euro 2016 squad and his overall thoughts on Italian players moving to MLS.

Now, let’s make one thing clear: The league is not as bad as outsiders like to think it is, but it does have plenty of room for growth.  Perhaps it would be more productive to stop comparing it to the EPL and La Liga, and embrace the aspects of MLS that make it unique.  The grinding travel from coast to coast, the different time zones, the changing landscapes from California’s sunny, temperate weather to the altitude and thin air in Colorado.  Comparing MLS to the big European leagues is like comparing NYC to Washington, DC.  Yes, you could compare them and say one is better than the other but what purpose does it serve?

Writer’s note: New York is better.

But here’s where Martino can have the biggest impact.  Not only does he bring a big name and pedigree: he is the biggest international coach to have ever landed in MLS. He also brings knowledge and a different mentality to a league that, for all its progress, is still behind in terms of quality.  He has the network to scout and try to lure young players that can be sold on the idea of playing in the United States.  

Take Miguel Almiron for instance.  Atlanta United paid a reported $8 million fee to sign him.  At only 23, the former Lanus starlet could easily be plying his trade in Europe.  His signing should mark a turning point in MLS, a before and after, for players the league attracts.  The league is years away from being able to compete with European clubs offering lucrative deals, but it should not be shy in selling itself as a conduit to the American dream – though that might have just become a tougher sell with the current immigration climate.  The league also boasts first-class soccer facilities (let’s forget that a baseball stadium is being used for official soccer matches for a moment).  In the end, some will continue to turn it down but there will be plenty of players who see a move to MLS as a life-changing opportunity for themselves and their families.

The benefits of having one of the most high profile soccer coaches in the world on American soil go beyond what players might be willing to give MLS another look.  Martino’s influence can extend to American soccer coaching too.  MLS counterparts will undoubtedly gain from competing against him.  But Martino’s impact might go even further.  Unbeknownst to many, last year, Martino gave a soccer coaching clinic at a New Jersey community college while still manager of the Argentina national team.  MLS – and perhaps US Soccer – would do well to harness this kind of knowledge sharing which can only raise the standards of coaching across the country and, in turn, improve the development of American soccer talent.

But what’s in it for Martino? He risks his reputation and it would be hard to recover from failure with Atlanta United.  Based on his team’s early results, failure appears unlikely.  Ultimately, when all is said and done and Martino’s time in the league is up, his success will be measured by how many MLS Cups he wins.  Another more difficult and less palpable measure of his legacy will be the change that he brings to the league and to soccer in the United States.  Whether he knows it or not, he is making a generational investment in MLS’s future; an investment that down the line will lead to a more respected league that will no longer be viewed as second tier by those who “know”.

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