As deftly as he guided Atlanta United to an MLS title in just its second season, Gerardo Martino side-stepped questions about the team while in town on Monday to promote the team he now leads, Mexico, a few weeks before it will play Venezuela at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Though the reasons go deeper than a managerial change, Atlanta United hasn’t been the same team since Martino left and Frank de Boer took over.
Martino said he has watched a lot of Atlanta United’s games in the Champions League, in which it was eliminated by Monterrey in the second round, and the league, in which it is 2-3-2 having just last week earned its first win at home.
“Obviously, I have nothing to add,” he said through a translator.
Martino praised de Boer, saying he was a fantastic player with a top resume as a manager in Holland, Italy and England.
“A step up for Atlanta United,” he said.
Martino said he has communicated with several Atlanta United players, including Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Tito Villalba, as well as former player Miguel Almiron, who was sold to Newcastle during the offseason. Martino said those conversations will typically happen after developing relationships and experiencing success.
Mexico will host Venezuela on June 5 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in what will be both preparation for the upcoming Gold Cup, and a bit of nostalgia for soccer supporters in Atlanta United. It was Mexico and Venezuela that played the first soccer game in the Georgia Dome on June 24, 2009. The attendance of more than 51,000 showed that Atlanta had a passion for the sport and may have played a small part in paving the way for Atlanta United’s berth in 2014, and for Martino to eventually agree to become Atlanta United’s manager.
El Tri returned again in 2011 to play Bosnia and Herzegovina in front of more than 50,000, and then twice more as part of a Gold Cup doubleheader against Trinidad and Tobago in 2013 in front of more than 54,000, and Panama in 2015 in another doubleheader in front of more than 70,000.
Mexico won each game.
Martino, of course, won a lot of home games as Atlanta United’s manager. The MLS team went 22-5-7 during the previous two regular seasons, famously defeating Portland to win last year’s MLS Cup on Dec. 8, 2018 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
It was Martino’s last game in charge of the Five Stripes. He had previously announced in October that he wasn’t going to exercise the option on his contract.
Months of speculation during the season had tied him to Mexico, even as he persistently denied reports and rumors because he said he wanted to keep his attention on Atlanta United, and he hadn’t yet made up his mind about his future.
He was introduced as Mexico’s manager on Jan. 7. It is his third time leading a national team after having previously managed Paraguay (2007-11) and Argentina (2014-16). He said the change from managing a club team to a national team is easy because he has experience.
But managing Mexico will be a different challenge than any he has previously faced because of the enormous expectations despite the lack of success.
Though the country produces world class players such as Javier Hernandez and Andres Guardado, no manager has been able to take the talent past the quarterfinals of the World Cup. It has twice made it to the quarters, both times when it hosted the tournament in 1970 and 1986, and twice has been eliminated. It was beaten by Brazil 2-0 in the Round of 16 of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“That’s certainly our goal,” Martino said. “It’s based on reality. We have to build a good team that is built on confidence. We can achieve that. I don’t want to talk about what’s happening in four years. We need to focus on now.”
Martino will likely select a strong squad for the game against Venezuela because the Gold Cup will begin 10 days later. Mexico will open against Cuba. It will play Canada on June 19 and Martinique on June 23. The tournament quarterfinals will be June 29, the semifinals July 2 and the finals will be July 7 at Soldier Field in Chicago.
He said the point of playing Venezuela will be to prepare his team for the Gold Cup.
“We’d like to play well,” he said. “We’d like to have the same performance we had against Chile and Paraguay (in recent friendlies).”
Martino was only in Atlanta for a day on Monday as part of the tour. But he said he has fond memories of the team, the management and misses the city.
“I always say that if I would have been a coach here 10 years earlier, I would probably remain living in Atlanta,” he said. “That’s the best compliment I can give the city.”