CHICAGO – Gerardo “Tata” Martino seemed destined to coach in a United States vs. Mexico game; the only question was which dugout he’d be sitting in.
His name was mentioned in connection with the US men’s national team’s coaching search to replace Bruce Arena before he eventually agreed to take the helm of the Mexican national team following his 2018 MLS Cup-winning campaign with Atlanta United.
If Tata felt any disappointment at missing out on the USMNT job, he wasn’t showing it on the eve of the Gold Cup final. Martino declined to comment on whether there had been any communication between him and U.S. Soccer officials when asked about it during the final press conference before Sunday night’s Gold Cup final at Soldier Field (9 pm ET | FS1, Univision, UDN).
Instead, he chose to praise the man who was hired instead.
“I think that the United States is in very good hands,” Martino said of Gregg Berhalter, whom he faced on five occasions when the two coached in MLS with Atlanta and Columbus Crew SC, respectively. “Gregg is at the helm of the US team, I’m at the helm of the Mexican team, and tomorrow there is no lesson of any kind.”
It’s probably still too soon to judge if each coach was the right choice by their respective federations, and Martino indicated that the result of the title match won’t decide such questions, saying that his ultimate goals with El Tri are “longer-term.”
Much like Berhalter’s USMNT, Martino’s Mexico have looked short of the finished product in the build-up to Sunday’s final. After emphatic wins over Cuba and Canada, they squeaked by minnows Martinique in the final game of the group stage before needing penalties to advance past Costa Rica. The closest call came in the semifinals against Haiti, as Mexico prevailed thanks to a controversially-awarded penalty kick for a foul on Raul Jimenez less than two minutes into extra time.
It was a moment that produced some accusations of pro-Mexican refereeing bias, though both Martino and Berhalter brushed away questions on the matter.
“I think that the referees so far in this tournament have done a great job,” said Berhalter. “What I can only hope is regardless of the crowd noise, regardless of the atmosphere, the referee will still be able to perform in an unbiased way.”
As for the USMNT’s bumps in the lead-up to this tournament, Martino said he’s been impressed by how the US have adjusted to Berhalter’s tactics, particularly over their five Gold Cup matches.
“The soccer he plays requires time and that’s what he had in the friendlies,” said Martino, reflecting on the USA’s poor pre-tournament results against Jamaica and Venezuela. “That was a way to get ready, that was a way to gain knowledge … but you can see how they’ve developed.”
As trying as the two teams’ respective roads to this final may have been at times, Martino said Sunday's game, beyond simply being a final, will be a test unlike either team has faced – and that both will be feeling equal pressure.
“I imagine there’s going to be a very shared stage,” Martino said, declining to declare which team was the favorite. “Both of us are going to have a different challenge than what we’ve had up to this point.”