Tata Martino chose the most unlikeliest of places to rebuilt a damaged coaching reputation, but the former Barca boss has been spectacular in MLS
After the bitter disappointments of Barcelona and Argentina, there is a smile back on the face of Gerardo Martino after his Atlanta United side wrote themselves into MLS history this week, becoming the fourth expansion team to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs.
The dominant 3-0 win over Philadelphia Union sealed a spot in the Playoffs, making Atlanta only the fourth team to confirm their place with four rounds of the regular season remaining.
Appointing an established coach like Martino and investing heavily in the squad came with its own set of pressures but expectations were still relatively low for a side in their first year in MLS. However, this week’s victory made it seven unbeaten and more impressively twelve unbeaten at the raucous Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Not since the Seattle Sounders in 2009 has a club reached the playoffs in the first year; Atlanta have not only managed that with relative ease but will be a side that few will want to face in the knockout stages.
Particularly in Atlanta, where the locals have taken to their new club in style. The Five Stripes have broken MLS attendance record, with over 70,000 fans packing in for matches and this atmosphere goes someway to explaining the formidable home record.
The club deserve enormous praise for how quickly things have progressed but the ambitious move to hire Martino, straight from guiding Lionel Messi and co to a Copa America final has proved instrumental. Were it not for Martino, some of the players that he clearly had some say in bringing to the club and the resulting success on the pitch, it isn’t clear if support would have swelled so rapidly.
When the new franchise announced Tata Martino as manager it came as something of a shock despite the 54-year-old being out of work since resigning as Argentina coach. Martino had been two penalty shoot-outs away from ending La Albiceleste’s trophy drought but instead fell short after two lacklustre displays against Chile in consecutive Copa America finals.
The Argentinian Football Association (AFA) had clearly lost faith and eventually Martino walked later that summer but this and the season-long trophyless stint at Barcelona fueled a narrative that Tata was something of a fraud and only got his positions based on Messi support of Newell’s.
To those who hadn’t followed South American football in the years prior to the surprise Barcelona appointment, that might have looked feasible but to anyone else, there was little doubting Martino’s credentials.
With Paraguay, Martino had shown the tactical nous and defensive capabilities to take a team well beyond expectations as the Guarani reached a Copa America final and later with Newell’s, the experienced coach led La Lepra to the Argentinian Primera, playing some of the best football on the continent.
Things may not have worked out at the far higher profile jobs of Barcelona and Argentina but that didn’t make Martino a bad coach.
Given the backing of the club, Martino brought in players that he knew well and almost all have proved instant successes.
Miguel Almiron, Atlanta’s ‘franchise player’ as Martino referred to him, has been the roaring success that anyone who watched the young Paraguayan with Lanus will have expected. A big money signing, who look destined for Europe rather than MLS, could have gone badly wrong but instead has provided the creative, dynamic quality that Atlanta craved when getting out the cheque book.
Josef Martinez’s 18 goals from an astonishing 14 starts make the Venezuelan the league’s deadliest striker but it hasn’t only been these two high-profile signings to have made a real difference.
Hector Villalba has gone from the unpredictable and at times misguided speed merchant that he was at San Lorenzo to a hugely dangerous support striker and his 12 goals, particularly during Martinez’s injury layoff, were vital.
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez has been the cultured, ball-playing centre back that Martino wanted and young Yamil Asad, on the brink of throwing away his talent while with Velez, has stepped up and shown enormous potential.
It was little surprise to see Almiron, Villalba and Asad all named in MLS’s list of the best 24 players under the age of 24.
There are still four games to go in the season and Atlanta are aiming for as many points as possible to try and get the second seed. This could make the Playoffs much easier on Martino’s side and so the work has only really begun.
Reaching the Playoffs is already a huge achievement for Atlanta and with that record in the bank, the Five Stripes can now go seeking more history. Only Chicago Fire in 1998 have lifted the MLS Cup in their inaugural season and Atlanta are daring to dream.