The manager is leaving MLS – reportedly to join Mexico – after Saturday’s match, with players saying they’ll miss the person as well as the coach
Tata Martino could’ve come in to MLS with his nose turned up. He had managed Argentina, one of the world’s most important national teams. He coached Barcelona, one of the world’s greatest club teams. Now he deigned to come to the United States and take over an expansion team.
But it wasn’t like that.
As his Atlanta United players prepare for Saturday’s MLS Cup final against the Portland Timbers, the last game Martino will coach with the club, his players are reflecting on a legacy Martino is leaving of humility, sacrifice and a straightforward style that has made him a beloved figure in the Five Stripes’ locker room.
“I think the thing that probably stuck out to me the most is just how humble and how honest he is,” defender Greg Garza said. “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. He’s a part of this group, a part of this team and we can leave him a good legacy on Saturday.”
Garza is one of several players Martino and the team’s front office brought in to help build a team that made the final in its second year of existence. He arrived on loan last season from Club Tijuana and signed a long-term deal after a successful first campaign. There are the MLS veterans like Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz, the South American rising stars like Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez. There are young players like Julian Gressel, acquired in the draft and U.S. national team players like Brad Guzan who came back from Europe. It’s all held together by Martino and his philosophy of not only having a great team on the field but also having good people working together off it.
“I’ve seen teams where there are bad relationships in the locker room but they can leave that aside and win on the field. For me, I’m not satisfied with any part of that,” Martino said at a news conference. “It’s very important to have a good group of people that get along well, where the people come in to work and do it in a happy way, that they enjoy being at the club.
“And it’s not just the players, but the coaching staff, the trainers also, the kit-man, the people who work around the club. In these two years, we’ve been able to work in a marvelous environment with exceptional facilities. I think that good energy over the course of time transmits itself on to the field.”
While Atlanta’s players said they’re confident the environment fostered by Martino still can thrive when he leaves after the season, they’ll still miss the 56-year-old as he moves on to new pursuits. Multiple reports say Martino is set to sign a deal to coach the Mexico national team. If true, his players say El Tri are getting a coach that is humble but also speaks clearly and directly.
“He’s an excellent manager. He has a lot of good values as a person. He makes things very clear with short and direct messages,” center back Leandro Gonzalez Pírez said. “On the playing field, it’s the same. He speaks about working on tactics very clearly and knows a lot about football, so we’re going to miss him a lot.”
Asked to single out a few characteristics he’ll miss about the manager, midfielder Miguel Almiron struggled to pinpoint one thing. “I think I’m going to miss everything about Tata,” he said. “Not just me, but my teammates, the fans in Atlanta. He’s a great person, and as everyone knows he’s a great manager.”
A great manager who, by his own admission, has struggled in finals. It’s clear Martino has left a big mark on Atlanta and will be remembered fondly both for his team’s on-field achievements as well as his personality and how he dealt with those around him in Atlanta. Yet, it may feel a bit empty if he isn’t able to lift MLS Cup with his players Saturday.
As Garza said, the players do hope to put silverware in the trophy cabinet and add to Martino’s personal haul. But winning the league also serves as its own motivation.
“There’s no added urgency because of Tata leaving or the rumors regarding any of our players or anything like that,” Guzan said. “There’s urgency because, when you’re in a cup final, you never know when you’ll have the opportunity to be in another one. “
Still, it would be a wonderful final moment for Martino, a prize for starting what he and many others here feel will be a legacy of attractive soccer, a strong bond with the fans and, above all, a winning team.
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“I liked the ideas and ambition the franchise had and I quickly started to follow with that same idea,” Martino said. “Everything that has happened since shows the clarity Atlanta United has had with the way it wants to work and the path it set out to follow, and that’s what’s happening.
“The franchise’s expectations keep growing, since it’s only been two years. I’m surprised by the magnitude of everything, but not for what’s happened because what has happened was the first thing they put to me.”
A vision of winning that the manager has carried out with humility and love for his players. All that’s left is to draw up a winning game plan to top Portland and spark a send-off celebration for the ages.