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Thank You, Tata Martino

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Sincerely, Atlanta.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York City FC at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

There is an understandable instinct to throw your eyes as far back into your head as your physically capable when someone from the media brings up their interactions with “insert player/coach/executive.” Generally and genuinely, no one cares. But how do you not start with a personal anecdote when the person you’re writing about treats each person they interact with as though there are countless personal anecdotes shared between them?

All I could think of the first time I ventured to Atlanta United’s training ground in Marietta was Impostor Syndrome. You know, that thing where you’re positive, beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’ll swiftly and magnificently be exposed as a complete fraud to everyone around you? For me, Atlanta United had by far the highest Q Rating of any team I had ever covered. Not only that but I entered the training ground for the first time -- Not gracefully by the way. The door at the entrance had/has a talent for making people look especially stupid -- as an intern from the local paper with next to zero experience. And now my job involved pretending I belonged with longtime Atlanta media members from outlets that had been around even longer, and asking Tata Martino about the upcoming game like I had any actual idea what I was talking about. You know. Like a fraud.

I can’t remember what I asked. Something profound about the new training ground “being like, super nice,” probably. Tata took the question in stride and answered thoughtfully. I felt less like a fraud. By my third trip to the training ground, Tata took the time to make sure I had positioned myself on what he had deemed the *correct* side of the interview scrum. To him, it was a simple act of superstition to ensure the Five Stripes’ current winning streak would stay current. For me, it felt like I belonged as a journalist. I haven’t felt like a fraud -- around the team, or anywhere else -- since.

I’m just a college kid. I asked stupid questions. I spent too much time trying to fling folded paper at my friends from a rubber band slingshot during high school Spanish class to come even remotely close to communicating with Tata in his own language. And yet I was treated as if I was the highest paid member of The Athletic writing staff and someone who had been interacting with Tata for years.

It felt special. By definition, it wasn’t.

Everyone I’ve seen Tata interact with has received the same treatment. A few weeks ago, in the midst of a Supporters’ Shield post-mortem, rumors of a pending job with Mexico and preparation for a playoff run that would define a large part of his legacy, Tata took the time to wish a local reporter “Happy Birthday.”

Simple acknowledgements and regularly taking even the most rudimentary of questions (“Are you familiar with Juventus?”) with grace were stunning clearances of the admittedly low bar of manager to media interaction. Over time it became apparent that those interactions didn’t differ when the party involved shifted from media to fans, from fans to team staff, from team staff to players.

Speaking of the players, it’s important to remember that they would continue to and have described Tata in the same way. It’s important to remember that they rallied at the most crucial time of the season despite whatever presumed distractions were created by Tata’s imminent departure. And it’s important to remember that the brightest players that led to Atlanta United’s first star would never have been here without him.

Miguel Almiron and The Players’ Tribune have already said this with infinite amounts of eloquence more than I could.

Here’s the thing you need to understand: Tata is a legend. Legend is an understatement, actually. He’s an idol to so many of us in South America.

I was almost … how do I say this? Embarrassed, in a way. Like, What am I supposed to say to Tata Martino? What if he asks about my position or something about football and I sound stupid? I almost didn’t want the phone to ring. Can you believe that? I almost didn’t want to pick up the phone because of how nervous I was.

My dad was in the room with me at our home, and we were both sitting by the phone in complete silence. We just sat there. Waiting for it to ring.

And then it did. And I picked up. And I spoke to Tata for a few minutes.

And it turns out that this legend, this idol … he’s also the nicest guy in the world.

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 want to count with you,” is basically it. But what it means is: I want to rely on you, and I want to do this together.

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.”

A team that hadn’t played a game, in a city he had never been, in a league he almost certainly had never seen 90 minutes of, and Miguel Almiron decided after a single conversation that nearly everything in his life should and would be dropped to follow a coach he’d never met in person.

Josef shared practically the same story in The Player’s Tribune.

Atlanta? Never been. MLS? The first thing the comes up is a real estate website (I’m assuming he went to MLS.com). But El Tata is in? Why not.

And then they said that Tata Martino was going to be the coach.

El Tata? It is a giant, a name of the highest prestige in South America and in world football.

A couple of months later, I spoke with El Tata. He told me a little more about the project. The club was preparing for its first year, it was going well, and had signed great young players.

But the thing that stuck with me was his pride in the project, the excitement he had for creating something new . And that the club wanted me, a striker who had lost a bit of his way in Torino, to help spread football in this part of the country, in this part of the world.

Then I did not have to think much. I wanted to be in Atlanta.

And now that I’ve been here for two seasons, I know that the enthusiasm that Tata had with me, to put together the equipment I imagined, was authentic. All the people in the club have it.

Getting talent like Almiron and Martinez to a new team is the first thing. Implementing and crafting a playing style from the ground up is the next. A few weeks ago, Atlanta United legend Bobby Boswell gave a microscopic but insightful glimpse into just how well drilled the team became and how much confidence Tata inspired in players of every caliber.

I was traded to Atlanta at the beginning of August last year. Upon arrival we trained for 24 days straight. Every one of those days included some type of fitness. Every time that we trained with the full squad, we worked on playing out of the back. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

The team trained so much, that shortly after I arrived, the Players Association filed its 3rd grievance of the year against the team for not giving enough time off.

I trained at left center back, right center back, and sometimes just as a lone centerback. I stayed and watched film many days with the staff to try to get up to speed. In the 3 months of doing this, I felt I was playing as well as I ever had. I wasn’t even dressing for games.

I cannot speak for all other MLS teams, but it was a ridiculous amount of exercise in possession out of the back in Atlanta. The concept of moving into space that is not occupied is taught daily. I had never seen anything like it in my career.

The end result of all this is, for Atlanta United, the city’s first championship in 23 years. A massive accomplishment considering that not only did they have to beat the best Red Bulls team of all-time, but had to make their way past God and whatever other higher beings that were seemingly conspiring to keep Atlanta from ever having a second championship parade.

The end result for Tata — I can’t speak for him entirely but my intuition is this — is a renewed sense of self. It appears his time in Atlanta can be described as wholly and mutually beneficial.

Remember that Tata’s path to Atlanta was downward. A short period at Barcelona considered a failure by the club’s lofty standards followed by moment in Argentina that he, in an understatement, described to The Guardian as “a time of much convulsion” cleared the way for him to fall to Atlanta. The appeal of the new club coming mostly from a chance to draw on a blank canvas with no expectation, no hounding media and no pretense. Don’t worry. Just draw.

“It was an opportunity to start the story from the beginning,” says Martino.

“You have the possibility of choosing who you want, because you have no one. Here it was the same. There was nothing. So … we built up gradually, calling up the players.”

Tata admits that before he took the job, he took a few months to come to grips with a new life in a new country in a league he barely knew. Two years on and now primed for the spotlight inherent in a major international job, Tata admits that since he took the job that he found — in Atlanta, Georgia of all places — the normalcy he’d needed. That famous touchline fashion statement of a sweater turned into a cape felt indicative of that. A stark contrast from the suit he often wore at Barcelona.

In an interview with Jeff Schultz and the AJC he called the move “the most well thought-out decision I made in my career.” You have to imagine in 56 years of life dominated by soccer as a player and coach that an immeasurable amount of decision have been made. Against almost as immeasurable odds, Atlanta United ended up being a personal best.

Moments after winning MLS Cup, Tata faced the media, with his voice choking slightly, and provided perhaps the rawest clarity we’ll ever get on the impact of his decision to come to the deep south.

“I’m someone who has very clear ideas of what I want from myself so I don’t doubt myself a lot both as a person and as a coach,” Martino said through a translator. “But you’re always trying to learn more about yourself. And here, as I’ve said before, I went back to being a coach.

“That was the key for me here. Sometimes when you’re at very important clubs and at other places you don’t feel as much a part of the team. But here I went back to being a coach and we’re proud of what we were able to do. Putting together a team, bringing in the players and, obviously, this moment.”

It seems stunning that someone with so much clout within the footballing world would feel so disconnected in some of its most intensely devoted communities, yet it almost feels cliche. The fast riser gets to the top, falls even quicker and finds himself again in an unlikely place. It’s not a new plot, but it’s a good one made even better by the fact that it’s subject never looked down on the task at hand. It was a smaller stage, but one he still treated as if it were opening night at The Fox.

It would have been perturbing but understandable for Tata to handle the job, the league, the media, a dumb kid on assignment from his internship, with a sense of arrogance. Instead, however unsure of this period in his life he may have been, there was a sense of genuine care and responsibility to his new community and himself that payed massive dividends for everyone involved except for maybe, I don’t know, Zach Loyd? At the end of year one, thanks to a reciprocal passion from the highest levels of the club and the fans who supported it, the outlook had changed from “I hope this works” to Miguel Almiron saying this:

I kept thinking about what our coach, Tata Martino, had said to us before the match [against Columbus]:

“Be calm, tonight. But don’t be afraid. Know what you’re playing for and know who you’re playing for. Be aware of the chance we have and the expectation that comes with it. Play for Atlanta.”

Play for Atlanta.

That first playoff game didn’t end well. And the end of the next regular season didn’t end well either. Some people thought that losing the Supporters’ Shield to the best regular season team of all-time rested solely on Tata. That his leaving to take a new job distracted the team from finishing the drill on the final match day. But then everything clicked at the right time. Atlanta played it’s best soccer in it’s two-year history and cruised to it’s first MLS Cup, leaving no room for “external distractions” to envelop the narrative. Instead he leaves as an immensely popular figure at a club that didn’t exist the first time he learned of Atlanta.

It’s the only fitting end for a manager that left each person he came into contact with feeling the same notion he once invoked with Miguel Almiron over two years ago:

Quiero contar contigo.