March 11, 2018 Atlanta: Atlanta United head coach Gerardo Martino during the match against D.C. United on Sunday, March 11, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/
Photo: Compton
Photo: Compton

MLS Cup is ‘the end’ for Martino and Atlanta United

Gerardo Martino is anxious, as he said he has been before any final in which he’s played or coached.

The pressure he feels must be intense. He will manage Atlanta United against Portland in Saturday’s MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It will be his final game as the team’s tactician and strategist. It is his last chance to emphatically validate the decision to coach an expansion franchise in MLS when he likely could have had his pick among clubs or national teams from around the world.

Though a reason they want to win the MLS Cup is for Martino, his players say his legacy will go far beyond a trophy, or the exciting style of soccer he coached, or how he may have opened the door for managers with similar resumes to consider working for teams in the U.S. or Canada.

Martino’s legacy will be much more personal, with soccer knowledge thrown in.

“Just a good guy overall,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “That’s why he’s loved by everyone.”

Martino’s resume is vast. He turned professional in his native Argentina at 16 years old in 1980. He played, mostly for Newell’s Old Boys, until 1996.

He transitioned into management in 1998, showing a unique ability to get the most out of whatever level of talent was on a roster. He became manager of Paraguay in 2007, turning the country’s national team into a solid, aggressive squad that finished runners-up in Copa America in 2011.

He moved on to manage Newell’s Old Boys, saving it from relegation in 2012 and then leading it to the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores tournament in 2013.

His work caught the attention of Spanish juggernaut Barcelona, which hired him in 2013. He left after one season, another piece in a trend of him never staying anywhere too long and why his leaving Atlanta United after just two seasons wasn’t a surprise.

He moved on to coach Argentina’s national team for almost two years, but won no trophies, another unfortunate recent trend for him as coach.

And then he became intrigued by the start-up MLS team in Atlanta owned by Arthur Blank.

The challenge of building a project from scratch was intriguing. Knowing that Blank would give him whatever he could to help build a winner was assuring.

Martino arrived with a news conference at the World of Coca-Cola in September 2016. He began working out of an office at Blank’s headquarters, writing on a white board the names of players that he hoped the team could sign.

A phone call from Martino usually was a good way to start recruiting. Many of Atlanta United’s players who are from South America said that a reason they joined Atlanta United was because Martino asked.

The team broke training camp in Bradenton, Fla., in January 2017.

The players quickly began to realize that Martino, though revered in South America, didn’t carry himself with an expected arrogance.

They could talk to him. 

“We’ve all had coaches and you walk by anywhere and you put your head down, this is awkward, don’t look and say hi, don’t look at him,” Parkhurst said. “Tata has never been like that.”

He was honest with them. Telling him exactly what he wanted almost as soon as he realized it.

“We appreciate that,” Leandro Gonzalez Pirez said.

And, when he’s mad at a player, he will let them know. Striker Josef Martinez said that may be what he will miss most about Martino.

He was funny and curious, once instructing a journalist about Mate tea during training camp near Orlando before the 2018 season.

But it’s more than just conversation and an ability to relate, even though he doesn’t speak the language of some of his players or those he interacts with.

It’s that, as Parkhurst said, he’s human.

Martino will take the middle seat on airplanes so that the players can stretch out their legs.

“That points out that he doesn’t want to be more than any of us,” Garza said. “He’s part of the group and has shown that to us and his honesty with us each and every day.”

And, of course, there’s the soccer and what he has taught the players. His knowledge helped the team secure a CONCACAF Champions League berth. It pushed them to within one bad game of winning the Supporters’ Shield. It secured for him this year the Coach of the Year, Martinez the MVP, Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez top-five finishes in Defender of the Year voting, a top-five finish for Brad Guzan in Goalkeeper of the Year voting, and Rookie of the Year for Julian Gressel last year.

There’s not one thing that some of the players said they will take from Martino.

“There’s been a million soccer things,” Larentowicz said.

Larentowicz said one of his favorite days of the week is when Martino scouts the opponent. Larentowicz said Martino has an almost prophetic way of knowing what the opponent is going to do.

As an example, in the first conference final game against the New York Red Bulls, during scouting Martino told the team that the Red Bulls would try to get the ball to the back post, and that the ball would be sent back to the penalty box for someone to run onto.

That exact thing happened. Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips scored, but the goal was called back because another player was offside.

“You go into a game feeling more confident than you would otherwise because you feel like you have all the necessary information and what it takes to beat a team,” Larentowicz said. “It’s almost like you are sitting down to play a board game or video game and someone is giving you all the cheats. Someone is telling you exactly what’s going to happen.”

Atlanta United’s players won’t know if Martino has given them what they need to win the MLS Cup until the game starts.

They do know that playing for him has been special and that winning would be an appropriate thank you.

“Very grateful to have him the past few years, and hopefully we can leave a legacy for him,” Garza said.

Martino isn’t concerned about his legacy. He’s never been one one to worry too much about things he can’t control, such as the rampant speculation about his future. 

He said he is satisfied with the processes he and his coaching staff have put into place and that he is confident that the club’s success will continue under the next manager.

Martino does know one thing about his time with Atlanta United. And it’s true, whether the teams wins its first MLS Cup. He said it so matter-of-factly at the beginning of a teleconference that it was a bit jarring, but emphasized that he is comfortable with his decision to leave, even if he is anxious about the final game.

“It is the end,” he said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.