Stejskal: How Atlanta landed Tata Martino as their first head coach

Just in case it wasn’t already crystal clear, Atlanta United FC announced to the world that they intend on being one of MLS’ biggest clubs on Tuesday, when they hired Gerardo "Tata" Martino as their first head coach.

The hiring is a statement of intent by Atlanta, who will join MLS as an expansion outfit in 2017. Martino comes to Georgia as one of the bigger names in the world market, having spent the last two years with Argentina after managing Barcelona during the 2013-14 season. Coaches of his stature haven’t traditionally come to MLS. That Atlanta were able to land him over a number of big clubs – including, reportedly, Club America – is an indication of just how seriously they should be taken.

The news ends a saga that began shortly after the end of this summer’s Copa America Centenario. Martino managed Argentina to a second straight runner-up finish in the tournament, falling to Chile in penalties in the final – the same outcome as in the 2015 competition. He resigned from his post less than two weeks later, citing “serious problems” within the Argentine FA in his decision to step down.

A free agent for the first time since he left Barcelona in 2014 after failing to lead the club to any major trophies, Martino set about looking for a new job.

One of his first calls was to Atlanta.

Martino expressed his interest in the Atlanta job in a phone conversation with club executives, two of whom – team president Darren Eales and club technical director Carlos Bocanegra – flew to meet with Martino in his hometown of Rosario, Argentina just days after the initial talk.

The meetings in Argentina went well enough to get Martino to Atlanta, where the 53-year-old met club owner Arthur Blank and toured the under-construction Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta and the site of the club’s future training facility in suburban Marietta.

Both parties felt comfortable with each other, with Eales and Atlanta drawn to Martino’s pressing style of play, commitment to youth development and character and Martino attracted by the chance to start from scratch in Atlanta, who – unlike their expansion partner Minnesota United FC – have never before fielded a senior team in any league.

Eventually, Atlanta extended an offer to Martino. As with any negotiation, Eales said that there were some ups and downs, but that he thought both parties felt they were a good match for each other from the start.

“I think there was a genuine sense of empathy and thought that this could be the right fit,” Eales told MLSsoccer.com in a phone interview on Tuesday. “As we talked further and he came here to Atlanta, I think more and more we felt this was going to be a great fit for both parties – then it was just a case of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.”

The main thing that drew Atlanta to Martino was his preferred playing style. As detailed by Matt Doyle yesterday, Martino employs a fast-paced, pressing style of play. His teams don’t really slow things down; instead, they try to break through opposing lines immediately after winning the ball.

That type of style is something that Eales said he and Bocanegra wanted from the start of their tenure in Atlanta. In addition to the up-tempo, attacking style of play he’s known for, one of the things Eales said most drew Atlanta to Martino was his commitment to youth development.

Atlanta have put a significant emphasis on young players and their youth program, signing 16-year-old US youth international Andrew Carleton to a Homegrown contract earlier this year and kicking off their inaugural US Soccer Development Academy season last week. On Tuesday, Eales cited Martino’s successful use of young players in his stint with Argentine club Newell’s Old Boys, who he took from the brink of relegation in 2012 to a first-division title in 2013, as one of the major reasons for his hire.

“He [had success at Newell’s] through playing some of the youth players in their academy,” Eales said. “He demonstrated that commitment to youth development. Again, that’s an important part of the club philosophy at Atlanta United. We want to be in the forefront of youth development and part of that is having a coach who’s not afraid to play young players. You need to have a pathway from your academy for it to be successful so that was something else that was important.”

Martino, who has coached some of the best players in the world at his last two jobs, should also add to Atlanta’s player recruitment. The club currently have seven players on the roster, with 21-year-old Argentine Designated Player Hector Villalba and veteran Trinidad and Tobago international Kenwyne Jones currently the highest-profile members of the squad.

They’ll fill out their squad through a variety of mechanisms this winter, with Martino expected to play a particularly large role in bringing high-profile international players to the club.

“I think it’ll be a really big asset,” Eales said of Martino’s ability to recruit players. “I think it really goes without saying that if you’re looking to talk to some players and get them to come to Atlanta, to come to MLS, to be able to have as a coach Tata Martino, who has coached a lot of the top players in the world at Argentina, at Barcelona, at Newell’s Old Boys and Paraguay, that is clearly going to be an asset for us.”

Eales said that Atlanta spoke to “a lot of” candidates “across a variety of different backgrounds” before hiring Martino, but declined to name any of the contenders or share a specific number of people that were in the running.

Presumably, some of the candidates had a working knowledge of MLS – something Martino will have to develop. Foreign coaches have historically struggled in the league, with some high-profile managers flaming out at several different clubs over the years. Martino will have to bone up on the league’s 21 other teams, player pool and myriad intricacies ahead of the Expansion Draft in December, SuperDraft in January and the opening of preseason later that month.

He’ll have help, of course. Bocanegra and director of soccer operations Paul McDonough, who served as an Orlando City executive ahead of and during their debut season of 2015, have plenty of MLS knowhow.

Eales, who came to Atlanta from English Premier League club Tottenham in December 2014 and shares a connection with Martino to Spurs’ Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino, also said that Atlanta plans on hiring someone with MLS experience to serve as an assistant on Martino’s staff.

Martino, who has never before played or worked in an English-speaking country, will also have to adjust linguistically and culturally to the US. It’s worth noting that he’s not starting from zero – Martino can already speak basic English and his wife has taught the language professionally.

For his part, Eales isn’t concerned about Martino adapting to MLS. He’s confident that Martino, who he expects to move to Georgia full-time in the middle of October, will take full advantage of the blank slate offered by Atlanta United to craft the new club into a winner – even if it doesn’t necessarily happen overnight.

“This is a great opportunity and a great fit for Atlanta United in terms of us trying to establish ourselves as quickly as we can,” Eales said. “But, we’re under no illusions. It’s really difficult as an expansion team because of the way that the league is structured to be successful right off the bat. So we’re not going to kid ourselves and think we’re going to win MLS Cup or waltz to the playoffs in year one, but our aim is to be as competitive as we can, as quickly as we can.”

“And I think head coach is an area that we felt this is a chance we had to get, in Tata, a top-class coach who’s got vast experience internationally with a variety of teams,” he continued. “…For us, it was about who was the best coach we could get to lead Atlanta United as a new expansion team, and Tata was certainly the candidate that ticked all the boxes.” 

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