ATLANTA – It all started with a lunch -- a very long lunch.
A few months ago, the Atlanta United FC brass traveled from the southeastern United States to eastern Argentina. After landing in Rosario, club president Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra were hosted by Gerardo "Tata" Martino.
Eales and Bocanegra’s intent was a very specific one: to convince Martino to move stateside and manage Atlanta United for the team’s inaugural MLS season in 2017.
“We started lunch around noon and finished when people were coming in for dinner,” Eales recalled during Martino’s introductory press conference on Wednesday in downtown Atlanta. “From the very first moment I spoke to him on the phone until a couple of days later when Carlos and myself hopped on a plane to go out to Rosario to meet with him, in what turned out to be one of the longest lunches in the world, I felt he was going to be a great fit.”
That lunch was just as significant for Martino. “I knew right away it was the right time to come to coach to MLS,” he said on Wednesday.
The former Argentine national team and FC Barcelona head coach presented the Atlanta retinue with his idea for the team, pressing the saltshaker into service as a central midfielder. He then moved on to using the pepper grinder as a winger while complementing his manifesto with some utensils and napkins.
As the night went on and they kept on playing at the table, both parties began to conceive an agreement that two months later was presented to the world.
“What was interesting to me is that he had a [very thick] notebook, and inside he had every single [MLS] team roster and their team shape printed out,” said Bocanegra. “He’d done his homework, he asked for the rules ahead of time, and he wasn’t just brushing us aside that afternoon. So, we knew right there that he was interested and he was serious about it.”
Atlanta United is one of two teams joining MLS next season, and perhaps the biggest difference between them is that Minnesota United has already laid ground in the second-tier NASL. Martino’s first task is to build a team from scratch, while making sure his acquisitions mesh with the seven players the team has signed already.
Martino's previous endeavors have taken him to clubs with vast histories behind them, and teams with long-term players in their rosters. Atlanta United will be another story.
“To be honest, that’s something that attracted me from the beginning -- to be able to build a team from nothing,” he said. “It was a unique and an unrepeatable opportunity to choose the best players in order to execute an idea, and making sure that the whole club has the same philosophy from the first team to the academy.”
It’s fair to say that Atlanta United has landed a coach who was wanted by many clubs and national teams. His announcement on Tuesday made headlines by many international outlets from Argentina to Spain, and continued with the buzz the team has generated in the city.
For Eales, Martino’s appointment is a statement to what the club wants to be in North American soccer.
“If you come to Atlanta United, you have to be a pioneer,” Eales said. “It says a lot about the growth of Major League Soccer to be sitting here as an expansion team to announce our very first head coach, whose previous two jobs were coaching the Argentina National Team and FC Barcelona.”
The spotlight that follows coaching Lionel Messi for the last three years didn't really matter to the Atlanta front office, though. It was Martino's leadership before that which caught the attention of Bocanegra.
“People talk a lot about Barcelona. People talk a lot about Argentina. What interested me the most was when he was coaching Newell’s [Old Boys] and Paraguay,” said the former USMNT captain. “He took Paraguay and brought them up to the top 20 of the FIFA Ranking, to the quarterfinals of the World Cup and finals of Copa América.
“He took over at Newell’s in Argentina [in 2012]; they were a team struggling and battling the relegation, and he brought them back up and eventually won the [Torneo Final 2013] and led them to the semifinals of Copa Libertadores.”
Martino also acknowledged that the Copa América Centenario influenced his decision to sign with Atlanta. Beginning at Santa Clara, Calif., for the first group stage game and traveling for about a month across the country until Argentina played the final in East Rutherford, N.J., was a time that served well for Atlanta United’s purpose.
“It’s true that being in the US for practically a month, going to cities with a lot of distance between them, witnessing the organization and the respect of the people” played a part in his decision, Martino said. “These are very attractive situations for a coach and evidently influenced me when making a decision.”
Martino will fly back to Rosario at the end of the week in order to complete his coaching staff, still to be announced, before joining Atlanta full time in the following weeks to shape up the 2017 MLS season.