Gerardo Martino to Atlanta turns heads in Major League Soccer and beyond
It was late July when Atlanta United president Darren Eales received an inquiry about the team's managerial position from a very unlikely source, former Argentina and Barcelona manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino, who on Tuesday was named the club's head coach.
It didn't take long for the "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" line of thinking to creep into Eales' transom. Even though the team's roster construction is in its infancy, Eales had already been told by plenty of players that "It's not about the money," only for money to indeed be the sticking point that prevented a deal from getting done. He wondered if he was about to head down a similar path with Martino.
"I must admit, when I first heard [of Martino's interest], I thought, 'Is it genuine?' I was a cynic to start with," Eales said via telephone.
"But then when we had a conversation, I knew that [technical director Carlos Bocanegra] and I had to hop on a plane and get out to Argentina and at least see him face-to-face and see if it was worth taking further," he said.
As it turned out, it was. On Tuesday, Martino was named the first manager in the expansion club's history. He beat a list of candidates that included former Seattle Sounders manager Sigi Schmid.
It's an appointment that will turn heads not only in MLS but also around the world. It isn't often that a manager with Martino's pedigree walks through the league's door. Martino has won league titles in Argentina and Paraguay and reached the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores with his beloved Newell's Old Boys. He also managed Paraguay for five years and led them to the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup and the final of the 2011 Copa America.
Martino has also had his share of disappointments. His spell at Barcelona lasted just a single season, and his Argentina teams lost two Copa America finals via penalty shootout. Even so, he remains a respected figure in the game.
How is it that Atlanta United showed up on his radar? You can credit the coaching tree of Marcelo Bielsa. He managed Newell's in the early 1990s, and the creative hub on that team was none other than Martino. Another player at the club back then was current Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino. Eales was part of the management team that brought Pochettino to Spurs. To hear Eales tell it, that connection gave Martino a level of comfort that the Atlanta job was worth pursuing.
"Football is a small world," Eales said.
Yet there were other reasons for Martino to be interested in the job. He got to see the U.S. up close while managing Argentina during last summer's Copa America Centenario, and with that, he saw the enthusiasm for the sport that exists in this country. That doesn't always translate to MLS, but the league does have a positive story to tell, and with Atlanta set to begin play in 2017, the team is a veritable canvass waiting to be painted, with a new stadium and a new training facility set to be finished within the next year.
There is also the chance for Martino to find some stability in a career that has seen him manage 11 teams in 18 years. Given the chaos within the Argentina Football Association that led to his resignation, he will likely be grateful to find such a landing spot.
"I think for him it was interesting to talk to him throughout the process. MLS is going from strength to strength," Eales said.
"It's now shown in over 140 countries around the world, it's got a global presence, and I think for him this was something that he was interested in right from the start, in terms of that blank sheet of paper. I know coming from the Premier League and Tottenham, one of the big attractions for me was starting the whole club from scratch. You just don't get that opportunity in world soccer very often. I think for Tata as well, this was something that was unique and an opportunity for him to be a pioneer and something where he could leave a legacy."
The appointment raises some questions. MLS has chewed up and spat out its share of high-profile foreign coaches who had no previous connection to the league or soccer in North America. Carlos Alberto Parreira, Carlos Queiroz, Walter Zenga, Ruud Gullit and Owen Coyle are among those who proved unable -- or unwilling -- to navigate the league's salary cap and arcane roster rules. That trend has been bucked a bit this year, with Patrick Vieira enjoying a fine season with New York City FC, but it remains a risk to bring in someone from outside. Eales was determined to not let history of any kind limit his options.
"I never thought it had to be American or had to be foreign," he said. "I just think you had to take it on face value at the time you made the decision because the perception is foreign coaches don't work, but that wasn't a reason enough for me to say we're not going to hire a foreign coach. It was all about taking every candidate on their merits and then deciding who was the best fit, and for us, Tata was far and away the best fit."
Eales insisted that Martino's "eyes are wide open" to the fact that MLS is a different league, but the Atlanta United president is also of the belief that the team's front office -- which in addition to Bocanegra includes director of soccer operations Paul McDonough, who worked as Orlando City's GM during its expansion season -- has enough MLS knowledge to cover for Martino.
As an avowed "Bielsista," Martino will bring a distinctive style to the team as well, one that Eales expects to be used at every level of the team's academy. Martino's track record is one of giving young players a chance.
"We're creating our whole club from scratch," Eales said. "That includes the football philosophy and playing style."
"It's important for us to have a coach that has an identity, that's going to play the way we're looking to play, with that sort of attractive, expansive, fast and fluid soccer, high-pressing, all the things that Tata teams have tended to do in the past. But also for us to have that structure from the academy all the way through to the first team, so he was someone that fit the bill in that respect."
While Martino has his ideas on how the game should be played, his approach is accompanied by a healthy dose of pragmatism. His Paraguay teams in particular weren't always easy on the eyes. But in some respects, it was Martino's work with that side as well as Newell's that did more to catch Eales' attention than his work with Barcelona and Argentina.
"Martino isn't a coach that has to have a Messi in his team to be successful," Eales said. "He can do it with different players in different circumstances. He accepts that there are going to be a pool of players that he's going to be coaching, and his job is to get the best out of those players. And obviously, we're all going to work together as a team to get the best squad together within the rules."
There is also the issue of Martino's limited grasp of English, though that is mitigated by the fact that his wife, Maria Angelica, is an English teacher.
"We've already been winding him up that he has no excuses for not speaking it when we get the players together in January," Eales said.
For now, Eales is pleased to have landed a manager who gives the team a major injection of credibility.
"We're an expansion team, and it's been proven in past history that it's not an easy thing to do, to come into this league, because of the mechanisms and the way the teams are set up," he said. "But we're aiming to be as competitive as we can right from the start."
To that end, the hiring of Martino looks to be a big step in that direction.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.