Tata Martino brought so much to Atlanta United during his all-too-brief time here.
We’ll remember him for his aggressive tactical approach that has made the team so fun to watch. We’ll look back fondly on the sense of humor he brought to every press conference, which belied the immense pressure a soccer manager like him is under. And we’ll remember his tenure as one of the most successful in Atlanta pro sports history (even if he does or doesn’t lock up the Supporters’ Shield this weekend). With an MLS expansion team, he qualified for CONCACAF Champions League, set the record for most wins in a season, and is on the cusp of setting the single-season points record.
Most impressively of all, however, is that he created a one-of-a-kind talent pipeline that now runs directly from South America to Atlanta.
Soccer pundits had long dreamed of a time when MLS would move on from its fascination with aging European talent and start to attract young, developing talent from below the equator. The idea was to transform MLS into a selling league, bringing players in from leagues like Argentina’s Primera Division and selling them on for profit to top Euro leagues after they had a successful stint in MLS.
Tata helped make this dream pipeline scenario into a reality, at least in Atlanta. The rumors of Pity Martinez being on his way here offers proof the pipeline will outlast Tata’s departure.
Below are a just a few of the stories of how Tata’s resume and reputation helped to convince world-class talents like Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez to join the Atlanta United project, despite knowing little about MLS, or even of the city itself.
He told me he had an offer on the table for this new project in the United States, and that if he was going to go, he wanted me to go with him.
“Quiero contar contigo, Miguel.”
I could barely believe what I was hearing.
“Coach,” I said, “it is such an honor that you’re even calling me. Of course I want to go to Atlanta with you.”
I didn’t know much about MLS. I didn’t know where Atlanta was. I didn’t know anything. But Tata was manager, and that was all I needed to know.
They showed us the new stadium, facilities, etc. It was nice. But to be honest, that’s not what football is really about to me. It’s about the sport, the people, the feeling.
For me, this opportunity was about Tata.
He is Atlanta to me.
It might seem silly. (I have grown to love Atlanta for different reasons, too.) But it’s hard to describe the connection Tata has with the people of South America, and how many of us would do anything to play under him.
The next objective for Martino was a striker, a “killer” inside the box. That man was in Italy playing for Torino, where he scored 13 goals in 76 matches. Josef Martinez was eager to show his quality and to make an impact, since the very first moment. “I hope we can achieve a lot this year, do really well for the fans, the team, the city, and ultimately win a championship,” said Martinez.
For the Venezuelan forward, playing for Martino, was a dream come true. “I’ve been following everything he’s done as a coach, and I thank him every day for this opportunity.”
… “Tata” made a phone call to a longtime friend in Argentina: Omar Asad, whom he faced multiple times on the field, when he played for Lanus and Newell’s Old Boys, and Asad was a striker of Velez Sarsfield.
The reason for this approach? Martino was fervently interested to talk to Asad’s son, Yamil. His pitch to the young Velez Sarsfield midfielder? “We will compete for the championship from day one.” Minutes later Asad joined Atlanta on loan from his boyhood club.
Atlanta United center back Leandro González Pirez knew of head coach Tata Martino but had never spoken to him personally until he received a phone call from his soon-to-be new manager in January.
Fast forward five months, and the 25-year-old Buenos Aires, Argentina, native has started each of Atlanta’s first 14 games and become a key piece of Martino’s backline.
Even for Tito Villalba, whom the club signed before bringing Martino on board, couldn’t believe a legend like Tata was coming to Atlanta:
“For me, Tata is the biggest thing ever. One of the best coaches of all time, and to think he took the phone to call me… it didn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense, it was too crazy,” said Villalba, reliving the day he was first contacted by Martino.