Another rugged, ruthless performance, another positive result, another step towards the ultimate goal for Atlanta United and Gerardo “Tata” Martino. And it’s not just the Philip F. Anschutz trophy that’s now within reach, but a unique legacy for both a coach and a club who’ve made a habit of obliterating what were once seen as laws of nature for their league, their city and organizations like them.
Coaches in Martino’s position are often described as having “one foot out the door.” It’s a phrase reflective of human nature: Once we see the end of one chapter in life, love or career approaching, it’s deeply natural for the mind to drift towards the future, the next phase.
Tata and ATLUTD have known for more than a month, maybe longer, that the charismatic Argentinean is headed for the exit this winter. Multiple reports strongly suggest that the Mexican national team is his next gig, and that’s one of the biggest, most visible and pressure-packed managerial jobs in the Western Hemisphere. After all, this is the life of a globetrotting gaffer like him: “You always have to have your suitcase packed,” he reminded reporters this week.
“That’s how life is for us,” ATL utility man Julian Gressel said back in October. “You don’t get these opportunities to win [trophies] too often in your career, so you have to make the most of it. Whatever people decide, I hope people stay committed to what we’ve done this year.”
But for a moment it appeared that the impending departure of their dear leader had destabilized the Five Stripes – when they fumbled away the Supporters’ Shield in the regular-season finale, by getting soundly whupped in Toronto by a Toronto FC team that finished miles outside the playoff places.
That dispiriting Decision Day presented by AT&T seemed awfully far away on Thursday night, as Atlanta comfortably protected their aggregate lead and saw out the second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship against the New York Red Bulls. It seems obvious now that the Five Stripes, whether with Tata’s guidance or on their own as a squad, some time ago found a collective mental space in which they could shut out those nagging thoughts of imminent change and steel themselves to the tasks at hand.
“That really lit a fire under us,” recalled captain Michael Parkhurst this week of the loss in Toronto, “in terms of knowing we needed to compete, and we needed to compete everywhere.”
Losing the shield was the best thing to happen to United.— Ashten (@Atl_Fanatic1898) November 26, 2018
Over the past two years we pundits have talked a lot about the unprecedented aspects of ATLUTD’s rise: Their capture of Tata, their commitment to attacking soccer, their recruitment of elite talent like Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, their sweeping investments in world-class facilities and infrastructure. And Arthur Blank & Co. have indeed changed the MLS game in all those respects.
But this cup run has been fuelled by qualities quite familiar to longtime MLS postseason observers: Tactical discipline, muscular defending, a fierce team spirit and above all, that savvy ability to sniff out an opponent’s weakness and exploit it to the max.
In Leg 1, ATL fed off their enormous home crowd and the Red Bulls’ unexpected caginess to build a hearty lead. In Leg 2, they killed the game, taking none of the chances that RBNY needed them to take in order to mount an unlikely comeback.
The same Five Stripes who love to get the ball and make magic with it? At Red Bull Arena – just like they did in their Conference Semifinals trip to NYCFC’s Yankee Stadium – they lumped long balls and clearances at an incredible 37.3 percent (that’s about twice the league’s normal rate) and their 49 percent passing accuracy is the lowest ever measured in the years it’s been tracked in MLS by Opta. And it drove the Red Bulls to distraction.
For you, Atlanta 😘🏆 pic.twitter.com/L8SEWYsHuq— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) November 30, 2018
“They came in with a different gameplan. They changed their tactics,” noted FOX analyst Maurice Edu. “They said ‘look, we're going to make these games ugly, we have no issue with that. We have no problem surrendering the ball, surrendering possession and breaking on the counterattack.’ And we saw again today how well they can execute that gameplan.”
As veteran Jeff Larentowicz put it in his postgame interview: “Once you move into the playoffs you can't really take any chances, you can't take any risks. You have to defend as a team. I thought we did that tonight. We did it against NYC, we did it the other night, on Sunday. It's just a team effort in the playoffs.”
Many teams – including some that made deep runs in these Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs – agonize over the importance of the so-called “Plan B,” a tactical alternative when their preferred style of play isn’t working. After struggling in last year’s one-and-done playoff outing, Tata is showing us that he’s got a B, C and who knows how many others in his bag.
And now, with just one more home win, he’ll depart the ATL as a champion, and an icon.