New Atlanta United manager doesn’t court Tata Martino comparisons

Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino on the sidelines during the MLS Cup Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino on the sidelines during the MLS Cup Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Back in July 2016, the tag team of Atlanta United president Darren Eales and vice president Carlos Bocanegra flew to Argentina for a business lunch. The meats flowed like wine.

They parlayed with local soccer royalty that day, and Gerardo Martino had them completely in his thrall. He seemed to know a good deal about this ambitious little North American league to which Atlanta was just joining. To his credit, he was well aware that MLS was not a ligament or some home shopping cable network. Eales would later recall that they became so engrossed in talking tactics and personnel that he almost missed his flight home.

Two months later, this city had its model upon which all future soccer coaches here would be measured. Employing an aggressive style, his team scoring goals at a league-leading pace, “Tata” as Martino was affectionately called, helped turn United from expansion team to model franchise overnight. By only his second year, United was a champion, kind of a rare feat around here. Then Mexico swooped in and poached him, a full stadium off Northside Drive apparently no match for an entire country.

So, imagine the thrill when Bocanegra spoke Monday of another recent trip to Argentina — complicated by COVID, but no hurdle is insurmountable when there is a soccer team to fix — wherein another prospect shined. As Bocanegra said more than once about this candidate, “He was very much aligned with what we were looking for here in Atlanta.”

“He was very detail oriented, prepared,” Boconegra said. “Something that was quite impressive to me was that he had done quite a bit of analysis on our team, not only the first team but down through the youth ranks.”

Gabriel Heinze must have said all the right things at that meeting and the front office must have told him what he needed to hear, because here we were Monday being introduced to Atlanta United’s third-ever head man. Another Argentine. Another well-travelled soccer gypsy with connections to some of the really big shows in Europe and South America. Another practitioner of attacking soccer, so we’re told.

Can you blame anyone for daring to dream that United just landed Tata 2.0?

Gabriel Heinze, coach of Argentina's Velez Sarsfield, has been hired by Atlanta United. (Dolores Ochoa/AP)
Gabriel Heinze, coach of Argentina's Velez Sarsfield, has been hired by Atlanta United. (Dolores Ochoa/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

If San Francisco could get another Bill Walsh; if Cincinnati or Detroit could get another Sparky Anderson; if UCLA could get another John Wooden, don’t you think they would? Martino is a short-attention-span version of such figures for the local soccer audience. All we know is that when he was here, Atlanta United won. A simple enough equation that even a stick-and-ball guy could understand.

But here’s where reality diverges from the comfy narrative. Human cloning being somewhat frowned upon, Heinze is not going to be anyone’s exact replica. While it is difficult to catch all the nuances while doing a virtual interview through a translator with the subject on a different continent, it did seem abundantly clear that the new guy had little interest in being a knock-off Tata.

Despite having even played for Martino for a couple years at Newell’s Old Boys back home, Heinze said the two of them have no strong relationship. He said he didn’t speak with Martino before taking the job, which seemed a waste of a very good resource.

Heinze, at 42, younger by 12 years than was Martino when he started at United, said has learned “many things from many coaches,” to bring him to this point.

“I’m far from carrying out another coach’s philosophy. I’ve learned from them but what one does is what (one feels),” he said.

Bocanegra, who has some work to do along with Heinze in getting United’s roster back in shape, said he wasn’t shopping for a twin Tata. He said you can’t expect him be Martino’s double, to which I stomp my foot and say, “Why not?”

“I don’t think it’s fair to start comparing Gabriel to anyone else,” Bocanegra said. “Gabriel has his vision. He has his thought process and philosophy. And that’s something that very much aligned with our thought process.

“This is Gabby’s team. It’s something we need to be mindful of, he’s his own guy, he has his own thoughts and he’s going to do a fantastic job for us.

“We all learn from previous stops of where we’ve been. We take little bits of information and go put our authority and stamp our style on it. That’s what you’re going to see — Gabby’s style coming out.”

Heinze has one single, huge advantage here: He doesn’t have to be the guy replacing The Guy. Frank de Boer took that bullet. Now Heinze can be the guy replacing the guy who replaced The Guy.

OK, so maybe Heinze can’t be all things Tata. That’s fair. But a close approximation would be nice.

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