MARIETTA, Ga. – Tata Martino celebrated his birthday earlier this week, and his favorite present wasn’t some new watch or fancy clothes. It was a framed photo of the tifo Atlanta United fans unveiled before their Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs match against New York City FC on Nov. 11.
“Very nice,” he said in English about the gift following the team’s final training session before Sunday’s first-leg Eastern Conference Championship clash against the New York Red Bulls (5 pm ET | ESPN, TSN2, TVAS).
The fans’ homage to their team’s head coach depicted him wearing his signature black sweater draped around his shoulders, along with the Spanish version of the phrase, “Not all heroes wear capes, but ours does.”
“I don’t have the ability to make a tribute to each one of the fans, but if I did, I would,” Martino said through a translator. “Because I think that relationship has been great ever since the beginning and just all the affection that they’ve shown for the team.”
The fans have developed a deep affection for El Tata, who announced last month he’d be leaving the club at the end of this season. And as Martino’s reaction to his birthday gift suggests, the feeling is mutual.
“It’s been a great relationship with the fans ever since I got here,” he said. “These last few weeks, they’re treating me just as well, and with as much care as they did when I first got here.”
Since Martino arrived, the fans have flocked in droves to support his team. The club now holds the MLS single-match attendance record (72,243), the single-season attendance average (53,002) and the highest total single-season attendance mark (now over one million and counting).
And another milestone was set at that match against NYCFC where the tifo was hoisted: highest attendance at an MLS playoff game (70,526), a record they may break yet again this weekend.
Martino’s winning, attack-minded and all-around entertaining style of play has played a key role in attracting one of the league’s most passionate fan bases. This, along with his avuncular and at times-playful personality, has resonated with Five Stripes fans from the start.
That personality also helped ingratiate himself with the Atlanta players, with whom he’s developed closed ties over two seasons.
Martino with ATLUTD fans | USA Today Sports Images
“He’s able to talk to guys about things off the field, not just football,” said goalkeeper Brad Guzan. “In terms of that, as a player, you’re appreciative of those conversations. He’s very friendly, very likeable.”
When told about the nice things his players had said about him, Martino joked that “if they don’t say wonderful things, they don’t play on Sunday,” before turning a bit more serious about those relationships.
“I’m someone who’s always tried to be very close to the players and to always have an open dialogue going with them,” he said. “Sometimes, depending on the group, that’s not always possible in every situation, but I think my best version of myself is when I’m close with the players.
“I’ve had a very good experience with the group here.”
Star playmaker Miguel Almironcredits Martino with convincing him to come to Atlanta, and was asked about the rumors swirling around Martino’s possible future with the Mexican national team. His response through a translator was short and sweet.
“I think if Tata goes to the moon, and picks a team, then they’ll play well.”