Atlanta United announced on October 23 that head coach Tata Martino declined his contract extension and would not be returning for the 2019 season.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone — rumors have been swirling for weeks. Yet it’s still a big moment for Atlanta, and their first serious inflection point. They’ve been on an exponential rise since they announced their club, and Tata’s departure marks the first potential obstacle they need to overcome.
The Five Stripes have built something incredible over the last two years. They have a successful, entertainment product on the field; a passionate, engaged fanbase; and a brand recognized on multiple continents. Martino has been the man to lead them from a concept to a potential champion. They must not venture into their unknown.
Tata’s departure is bad because:
- Tata has built something special. Change is always risky. Atlanta have been one of the top two teams in MLS all season and will head into the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs as a favorite. They play fun, entertaining, effective soccer. Will the new guy be as good as Martino?
- Tata’s name recognition carries a unique influence. When he calls to recruit someone, that player will answer the phone. Players around the world want to play for the guy who managed Barcelona, Argentina, Paraguay and Newell’s Old Boys. Atlanta United can lure players that other clubs cannot because of Martino’s status. Miguel Almiron has repeatedly stated Martino's importance in his recruitment to Atlanta.
- Tata’s personality has helped shape the soul of the club. Club executives didn’t bring Martino in to just coach the team; they brought him in to build a club. He had to set the path, both on and off the field, for what the organization would become. And the Five Stripes have become the coolest thing in Atlanta. That wouldn’t have happened with a boring guy in charge. Martino’s cool. He walks with a smile and wears the sweater over his shoulders even when he obviously won’t wear it just because he wants to look good and he laughs off critical questions like he’d never spend a second worrying over something so frivolous. He’s someone we’d want to get a coffee with or have over for Thanksgiving dinner. His image has set the image for the club.
- The new coach’s first task will be Concacaf Champions League. He or she will have a shortened preseason and then be thrown against tough competition. Atlanta are a club that expect to compete with the biggest teams on the continent. A quick CCL flameout could deflate their momentum and diminish some of the sparkle.
It’s fine because:
- Coaches often start to lose their influence over a team sometime in or around the third year in charge. It’s hard to keep players on their toes and motivated (or scared) for three years. World-renowned coaches like Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Marcelo Bielsa and Luis Enrique have recently sought a change of scenery after three years. Tata’s leaving a year ahead of the timeline, but major decisions are always made too early or too late, and it’s unclear which is worse. Had he stayed the full year, perhaps that year-three syndrome would have taken effect.
- If you want to be a club that brings top talent in, you also have to be a club that moves top talent on to where they want to go. Tata’s value increased while with Atlanta United. It might be a blow to lose him now, but it sets an example that Atlanta can then take to any top player or head coach.
- Teams might start to figure Atlanta out as some point. Atlanta’s playing style has been clear from day one under Martino — play out of the back, crush teams on the counter, counterpress in the final third — and they rarely deviate. In their defeat last month to New York Red Bulls, for example, Red Bulls boss Chris Armas was able to build a specific gameplan because he knew exactly what Atlanta wanted to do. When it was clear Atlanta was getting out played in the first half, Martino had his team stick to their usual routine. A similar comparison around MLS right now would be Columbus Crew SC this year. Columbus have struggled in the second half of the year. It’s important to have a specific philosophy for a team, but that philosophy will be implanted to opponent’s brains at some point.
In the short term, I don’t expect Tuesday’s news to be a factor on the rest of Atlanta’s season. Atlanta players have been reading the news just like you and me. They’ve had time to mentally prepare. And it’s been clear for a while that this would probably be the last year with Atlanta United as we know them. The roster, in addition to the coach, could be in flux this offseason. Anyone in the locker room should have recognized that this is a special season and a potentially small window.
If anything, the news could be a good thing for their trophy run this year. It cements that nothing is certain for the future. They won’t fall subject to the “Oh, being this good is easy, we’ll make it back here next year” syndrome. With Tata’s departure, next year may look very different.
It’s up to Atlanta, and their quest to be the dominant club in Major League Soccer, to ensure that it doesn’t.