Gerardo “Tata” Martino, the Argentine coach coming off a run managing at the very pinnacle of his profession with stints at the helms of Barcelona and Argentina, has officially signed on with MLS expansion team, Atlanta United FC. This is a weird one.
I really want to say something to the effect here of “Oh great, so one of the world’s foremost retirement homes for players is looking to add retirement-aged coaches to its clientele.” But I can’t say that in good faith. For MLS and for soccer in America, this is quite likely a truly good development.
MLS’s glittery signings of faded star players don’t fully distract from American soccer’s rotten core. We won’t start producing our own Cristiano Ronaldos once Cristiano Ronaldo joins the league in a few years; soccer won’t climb to the top of this country’s sports hierarchy once the already bloated league plunks down tradition-free expansion franchises in enough strategically placed markets to command a larger TV rights deal. America isn’t now and can’t become as good at soccer as the sport’s best countries because of the structure of the soccer pyramid, and the owner-friendly, competition-obviating economic shackles those owners have placed on the sport via MLS, and the intellectual isolation of the U.S. from the sport’s innovation centers that is only exacerbated by our inability to lure the best coaches and thinkers in the game. This is why MLS signing their newest European star, even if said stars’ average ages are creeping down, is almost completely beside the point of why the league sucks.
With all that said, hiring a coach like Martino is good in a (potentially) more meaningful way than, say, Zlatan Ibrahimović joining the L.A. Galaxy in two years would be. Martino might not be a world-class manager (despite his extremely high-profile last two jobs, Martino always seemed a tad over his head at both of his brief stops at the top), but he is legitimately a very good one (he’s done brilliantly at previous stops and still did pretty well at Barça and Argentina, and to a certain extent was painted as more inept than he deserved by those teams’ insanely demanding media and fan bases) who in any case has lots of experience coaching at a very high level.
Martino came to prominence as manager of the Paraguayan national team. There, he led La Albirroja to a quarterfinal appearance in the 2010 World Cup and to the final of the 2011 Copa América. He returned to Argentina to manage Newell’s Old Boys, the club with which he had spent a decade as a player, and turned them from relegation threats into title winners over the course of two seasons. He then made the leap to Barcelona, where he failed to win anything significant with a very talented but emotionally drained squad—Tata’s predecessor, the beloved long-time club assistant Tito Vilanova, had to resign after a single year in charge due to a cancer relapse; he later died toward the end of the following season. Martino resigned from his Barça post following one season and soon after took the Argentina job. His Albiceleste made two consecutive Copa América finals, but the team’s failure to win either tournament, and his inability to get the best out of such an outrageously talented player pool, led to another resignation.
After all that, Martino is going from Barça to Argentina to...Atlanta. The only angle from which this makes sense to my thinking is if somewhere in the back of his head, Martino thinks this MLS job might set him up for the USMNT job once Jurgen Klinsmann leaves.
Think about it: there aren’t too many places a manager can go after coaching the best club in the world and one of the best international sides. Martino could’ve probably gotten a highish-profile job with one of South America’s big teams, but it’d hard not to see that as a step down. Since he didn’t wow anybody with his managerial skills during his tenure at Barcelona, Martino probably wasn’t high on anyone’s list for the best jobs in Spain or Italy, or any job in England.
So why not join a team in America, sell yourself on the idea that you’re embarking on a noble endeavor to make soccer in the U.S. happen, cash what must be pretty sizable checks, bone up on the language, get a feel for the sport and the culture in America, familiarize/ingratiate yourself with U.S. Soccer, and, after a couple seasons of doing well on the pitch and politicking off it, bet on your chances for the U.S. job after the 2018 World Cup? It’s a logical path, and doesn’t veer all that much from the one Klinsmann himself took to the USMNT boss’s chair.
Broadly, then, Martino’s move could very well work to everyone’s benefit. MLS gets a proven coach with a philosophy forged in the hottest of smelters; Martino gets a lot of money and a lot less stress, and a spot in the catbird’s seat for the cushy USMNT gig; the U.S. gets a truly bright soccer mind who with any luck could challenge and improve upon the game’s culture over here, possibly for many years to come.
Sure, we have more than a little evidence that even very well-regarded European and South American coaches struggle to implement their ideas in such a limited and hyper-specific league like MLS, and even in the best-case scenario, Martino’s being named Atlanta’s coach won’t do anything to fix the underlying issues plaguing American soccer as a whole. But hey, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to hope for the best.