Two years ago, Gerardo “Tata” Martino was the coach of FC Barcelona. This past summer he was coaching the Argentina national team.
And now he’s the first head coach of MLS’s Atlanta United.
The club that starts play in 2017 made it official on Tuesday, announcing it had hired Martino, a 53-year-old Argentine, and signed him to a multiyear contract. For Atlanta, which has already sold more than 22,000 season tickets to break Seattle’s MLS expansion team record, landing Martino is another sign that this club means business from the start.
“We’re excited to get a coach of his pedigree and caliber to come to MLS,” Atlanta president Darren Eales told SI. “It’s good for the league to see not only players but coaches being attracted to this league. We’re pretty excited to have him on board.”
Martino is a native of Rosario, Argentina, where he played for Newell’s Old Boys and became a disciple of the hipster-favorite mad scientist Marcelo Bielsa and his high-pressing, quick-passing style of play. Martino’s coaching career includes stints in charge of Paraguay (which he led to the World Cup 2010 quarterfinals), Newell’s, Barcelona (where he spent the 2013-14 season, failing to win a major trophy) and Argentina (which he led to the final of the last two Copa Américas, falling to Chile both times).
At a time when coach Óscar Pareja, a Colombian, has guided Dallas to the top of MLS so far this season, Martino represents the continuing of a refreshing shift toward hiring Latin American coaches in the U.S. league. Although Martino’s English is “very basic,” Eales allowed, he added that he plans to improve his English quickly. It doesn’t hurt that Martino’s wife, Angélica, teaches English.
Eales said that while he’s aware of the history of failed big-name coaches who came to MLS from abroad—a list that includes Ruud Gullit, Carlos Alberto Parreira and Carlos Queiroz—he thinks the league is changing to give teams a greater ability to bring in name players through the Designated Player and targeted allocation money mechanisms. Eales noted the first-year success of Patrick Vieira, who has New York City tied on points atop the Eastern Conference and already qualified for the playoffs.
“There has been a traditional theory that foreign coaches haven’t done well,” said Eales, “but if anything we’re a new team building from scratch. Yes, you look at the history, but I don’t think just because something has happened one way necessarily means it will happen that way in the future. You always have to judge every case on its merits. Patrick [Vieira] is a good example of the myth of the foreign coach not succeeding, which patently isn’t true this year.”
Eales said Martino reached out to him in late July soon after resigning from Argentina (where the federation was in disarray). While Eales was a bit skeptical at first, he admitted, they had a good phone conversation in which Martino showed genuine interest in joining a start-up team. Eales and Atlanta technical director Carlos Bocanegra traveled to Argentina to meet Martino face-to-face, and negotiations went from there.
Additionally, Eales said he had discussions about Martino with Mauricio Pochettino, the Tottenham Hotspur manager. Eales knows Pochettino well from his own days as an executive at Spurs, and Pochettino played for several years at Newell’s with Martino (two of those years with Bielsa as manager).
“I think it was similar to what was interesting to me to come from Tottenham to MLS,” said Eales. “That chance to do something from scratch is something really unique, and I think that was a key draw for Tata, that chance to put your philosophy in and leave a legacy and be a pioneer. The other thing was when he came here and saw the resources being put in the team, steps were already taken. The training ground, the building is complete. The grass fields for the first team are already grown out and ready to go.”
“Also, it was great that Tata was here for the Copa América Centenario,” Eales added. “The passion and knowledge of the fans, the level of soccer is exploding from year to year. He felt that in the summer. There were a lot of factors that led to him being interested in Atlanta United.”
One of the other candidates interviewed by Atlanta was Sigi Schmid, the all-time leader in MLS victories, who was fired in midseason by Seattle.
When it comes to expectations for the 2017 season, Eales didn’t want to put any added pressure on Martino by saying anything about making the playoffs.
“Our aim is we want to try and set out a philosophy of play and style of play that gets our fans behind us and be as competitive as we can right from the start,” he said. “And let’s see where that takes us.”
By hiring a name coach and selling a record number of season tickets for an expansion team, Atlanta United is already on the map.