Atlanta United’s players had an inkling what was coming when they received a text message saying that there was an unexpected team meeting scheduled for Tuesday morning.
Then the worst-kept secret in soccer was made public when manager Gerardo Martino, in Spanish, told the players that he was leaving the club at season’s end. Though the players were sad after training, there were no tears Tuesday morning. There were no handshakes. There were no congratulations. That’s part of why the players said they respect Martino so much. He has always been honest with them, no matter if what he had to say was praise or something, like Tuesday’s news, that was less than positive. He has always been professional.
Then, as has been the case since the team opened its first training camp in Bradenton, Fla. in Jan. 2017, it was back to work. There are goals still left to accomplish, including potentially winning a Supporters’ Shield on Sunday at Toronto, and an MLS Cup, before Martino leaves as the team’s first manager.
“Players come and go, managers come and go,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “It doesn’t change anything that we are trying to accomplish from now until the end of the playoffs.
“We want to make sure we approach the week the right way and the playoffs the right way. Nothing changes from our standpoint.”
Captain Michael Parkhurst said the players weren’t surprised. They’ve heard the rumors. They’ve read the stories. Other than Jeff Larentowicz, most of them are on Twitter. So, the shock value was minimal of arguably the greatest managerial hire in MLS history walking out of the door when the season is complete.
“Grateful that we’ve had the experience of playing under him and learning under such an accomplished coach and good tactician,” Parkhurst said. “He’s been amazing for the club and amazing for us.”
Martino understood what club president Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra wanted: fast, fun football. A 4-3 win was even better than a 1-0 win.
Even as pieces of the roster were showing up more than a week into that first training camp in Florida, Martino took the vision and used his experience from managing Paraguay, Barcelona and Argentina among other places and turned the Five Stripes into an offensive buzz saw with a tight defense. The team turned soccer into a combination of Big 12 football on offense and SEC football on defense.
A legend in his native of Argentina, which earned the respect of the South American players on the team, he cemented the respect of the Americans and MLS veterans by showing up well-versed about the league and its bizarre rules, the teams, opponents’ best players, tendencies, etc.
“That’s tough on a new coach on a new team in a league to know that many things,” Parkhurst said. “I think that was pretty impressive. Guys who had been around MLS knew that he had done his homework.”
Still, there’s a difference between completing homework and going to the board and solving problems with more than 70,000 watching.
The players were able to jell during that camp and execute so efficiently once the season started because centerback Leandro Gonzalez Pirez said Martino is as good tactically as he is psychologically with a talent for clearly explaining to the players what they need to do, how they need to do it, and why they need to do it. That talent manifests itself during preparation for games, as well as in games. Because of Martino’s honesty and professionalism, Gonzalez Pirez said the players trust and don’t question. Parkhurst said that can be rare.
“There are always guys within a team that don’t respect a coach, or think differently,” Parkhurst said. “I honestly think that everyone on the team respects Tata, his thoughts, the way he goes about preparing the team for opponents, the way we set up and get ready for games.”
Led by Martino, the team last season became the first MLS expansion franchise to qualify for the playoffs, in which it was knocked out by Columbus, and this season tied the league’s single-season points record. With last week’s win against Chicago, it clinched a berth in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League by totaling the most points in MLS over the past two seasons.
It can win its first two trophies this season, which is why the players said Martino’s announcement in no way will distract them from goals set months ago.
They are confident that Martino won’t be distracted, either. Guzan said Martino has invested too much time to not give the team his best.
“I think it would be nice for him to end this process and send him out with a championship,” Gonzalez Pirez said.
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