Gerardo "Tata" Martino walked off the field at MetLife Stadium last July with a heavy heart. Having just watched the team he coached, the Argentinian national team, lose to Chile in a Copa America final for the second straight year.
The 53-year-old had been coaching for 18 years and after resigning from that post, he was able to find his next challenge less than 1,000 miles away.
After Martino took the Atlanta United job last September, he started his search for the best talent across the world. First and foremost his team needed a face, a franchise player willing to carry this team to the promised land. Fortunately, that player was a young talented kid from Paraguay, who grew up idolizing Martino, dreaming for the opportunity to play for the respected coach. That kid was Miguel Almiron, who according to his own words, was not going to pass on this unique chance.
“When I was younger, I used to talk to my friends and family, praising Tata, for everything he accomplished with our national team, therefore the idea of me training was a fantasy that I wanted to materialize.”
Martino's four championships in the Paraguayan Primera Division (3 with Libertad and 1 with Cerro Porteño) and five years coaching the Paraguayan national team were the reason, why Almiron, who at the time was one of the best players in the Argentinian soccer league with Lanus, decided to come to MLS and play for Atlanta, despite receiving offers from big teams in Europe such as Inter Milan and Arsenal.
“I was completely sure that I was going to learn a lot from Tata as my coach,” Almiron added in a recent interview with FutbolMLS.com.
For Martino, securing the young midfielder was a relief, but his job was just getting started.
“Once we were able to get Miguel, as our franchise player, I was confident we were on the right path to improve, because of his quality and integrity, he’s one of my favorite players of all-time, and I knew, we were going surround him with the right pieces,” Martino said.
With that statement, "Tata" made a phone call to a longtime friend in Argentina: Omar Asad, whom he faced multiple times on the field, when he played for Lanus and Newell’s Old Boys, and Asad was a striker of Velez Sarsfield.
The reason for this approach? Martino was fervently interested to talk to Asad’s son, Yamil. His pitch to the young Velez Sarsfield midfielder? "We will compete for the championship from day one.” Minutes later Asad joined Atlanta on loan from his boyhood club.
A couple of months later Asad scored the first goal in club history against the New York Red Bulls in front of 55,297 people inside the Bobby Dodd Stadium. That performance, along with many others this season, helped the 23-year-old land at the No. 11 spot on this year's 24 Under 24 ranking.
The next objective for Martino was a striker, a "killer" inside the box. That man was in Italy playing for Torino, where he scored 13 goals in 76 matches. Josef Martinez was eager to show his quality and to make an impact, since the very first moment. “I hope we can achieve a lot this year, do really well for the fans, the team, the city, and ultimately win a championship,” said Martinez.
For the Venezuelan forward, playing for Martino, was a dream come true. “I’ve been follow everything he’s done as a coach, and I thank him every day for this opportunity.”
Of course Martinez would go on to have one of the best goalscoring seasons in MLS history.
For Martino, the most important aspect of his work is to create a winning mentality based on a good work ethic.
“They didn’t come here to underestimate the league. They have come to work hard, make a name for themselves, accomplish important objectives.”
His connection with his players is undeniable, even when talking to Hector Villalba, who was signed before Martino's arrival in MLS.
“For me, Tata is the biggest thing ever. One of the best coaches of all time, and to think he took the phone to call me… it didn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense, it was too crazy,” said Villalba, reliving the day he was first contacted by Martino. Villalba is another player who is likely to be featured in the top ten of this year's 24 Under 24.
During their inaugural season in the league, Atlanta is likely to become the first Expansion team to reach the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs since the Seattle Sounders did it in 2009. The 24-year-old Martinez is in contention for the Golden Boot and Newcomer of the Year, along with Almiron, while 23-year-old midfielder Julian Gressel is in the conversation for Rookie of the Year.
During the entire process Martin emphatically explained to ownership, that his plans were all about signing and forming soccer players, with a solid structure that could last even after his team as the Five Stripes' head coach.
“My legacy…I would like Atlanta United to be recognized by how it plays, to create an identity from the U-12 to the first team. And honestly, I don’t want to do this just on my behalf, but for the good of the organization and the sport here."