As Atlanta United prepares for the two biggest games in its two-year history, Tata Martino’s place within the pantheon of MLS managers is yet to be decided. The Eastern Conference Final between the Atlanta and New York Red Bulls, the two undisputed best teams in the league, will go a long way in deciding how we’ll look back on the departing Argentine’s MLS tenure a decade from now.
Normally, any manager who takes over an expansion franchise and leads them to two straight playoff appearances and within two points of a Supporters’ Shield would be held up with the legendary managers who’ve come through MLS. However, Atlanta United is anything but normal. Expectations for Arthur Blank’s mega team are higher than any who’ve come before it. With a seemingly endless supply of funds, a handful of legitimate superstars, and a brash front office willing to take risks and make big splashes, Atlanta is already expected to be at or near the top of the mountain.
The narrative surrounding Martino’s short spell in MLS is already being questioned by the major media. After Atlanta United blew was appeared to be a comfortable lead in the Supporters’ Shield race, some in the media have pointed out that the team has struggled against the better teams while beating up on the bad ones.
I've pointed out repeatedly over the past two years that Atlanta are flat-track bullies. Takes a certain level of mental gymnastics to deny it but to be fair Five Stripes fans are capable of some amazing things.https://t.co/dLgYXyRwh8— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) October 30, 2018
When it comes to the best of the best, it’s hard to deny that the Red Bulls have had Martino’s number — especially this season. The most damning evidence of this came in the last meeting between the two at Red Bull Arena. With the hosts without arguably their two best players in Bradley Wright-Phillips and Tyler Adams, the Red Bulls still found a way to completely out-class United on the day. Chris Armas flat out out-smarted Martino with a suffocating high press that Atlanta simply had no answer for. The Red Bulls used this humiliation of the Five Stripes to propel its comeback in the Shield race and inevitably take it.
This home-and-home East Final is Martino’s chance to prove once and for all that he has the tactical acumen and flexibility to deal with an incredibly strong Red Bulls team. If he can solve the Rubik's Cube that is the New York Red Bulls and get his team to its first-ever MLS Cup, there will be no more questions or accusations about him or his team’s place in history.
Atlanta United fans will always be grateful to Tata Martino for his contributions. Long after he’s gone on to other jobs, he’ll have a special place in the hearts of everyone who fills Mercedes-Benz Stadium or watches every match on TV. However, for him to finally get the credit he deserves from the masses, he’ll need to finally out-smart the opposition on the biggest stage and get the job done.