‘Loved by ev­ery­one’: Martino pre­pares to coach his last game here,

To­day's MLS Cup is Martino's last game as United's tac­ti­cian.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Doug Rober­son drober­[email protected]

Ger­ardo Martino is anx­ious, as he said he has been be­fore any fi­nal in which he’s played or coached.

The pres­sure he feels must be in­tense. He will man­age At­lanta United against Port­land in to­day’s MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium. It will be his fi­nal game as the team’s tac­ti­cian and strate­gist. It is his last chance to em­phat­i­cally val­i­date the de­ci­sion to coach an ex­pan­sion fran­chise in MLS when he likely could have had his pick among clubs or na­tional teams from around the world.

Though a rea­son they want to win the MLS Cup is for Martino, his play­ers say his legacy will go far be­yond a tro­phy, or the ex­cit­ing style of soc­cer he coached, or how he may have opened the door for man­agers with sim­i­lar resumes to con­sider work­ing for teams in the U.S. or Canada.

Martino’s legacy will be much more per­sonal, with soc­cer knowl­edge thrown in.

“Just a good guy over­all,” At­lanta United cap­tain Michael Parkhurst said. “That’s why he’s loved by ev­ery­one.”

Martino’s re­sume is vast. He turned pro­fes­sional in his na­tive Ar­gentina at 16 years old in 1980. He played, mostly for Newell’s Old Boys, until 1996.

He tran­si­tioned into man­age­ment in 1998, show­ing a unique abil­ity to get the most out of what­ever level of tal­ent was on a ros­ter. He be­came man­ager of Paraguay in 2007, turn­ing the coun­try’s na­tional team into a solid, ag­gres­sive squad that fin­ished run­ners-up in Copa Amer­ica in 2011.

He moved on to man­age Newell’s Old Boys, sav­ing it from rel­e­ga­tion in 2012 and

then lead­ing it to the semi­fi­nals of the Copa Lib­er­ta­dores tour­na­ment in 2013.

His work caught the at­ten­tion of Span­ish jug­ger­naut Barcelona, which hired him in 2013. He left af­ter one sea­son, an­other piece in a trend of him never stay­ing any­where too long and why his leav­ing At­lanta United af­ter just two seasons wasn’t a sur­prise.

He moved on to coach Ar­gentina’s na­tional team for al­most two years, but won no tro­phies, an­other un­for­tu­nate re­cent trend for him as coach.

And then he be­came in­trigued by the start-up MLS team in At­lanta owned by Arthur Blank.

The chal­lenge of build­ing a project from scratch was in­trigu­ing. Know­ing that Blank would give him what­ever he could to help build a win­ner was as­sur­ing.

Martino ar­rived with a news con­fer­ence at the World of Coca-Cola in Septem­ber 2016. He be­gan work­ing out of an of­fice at Blank’s head­quar­ters, writ­ing on a white board the names of play­ers that he hoped the team could sign.

A phone call from Martino usu­ally was a good way to start re­cruit­ing. Many of At­lanta United’s play­ers who are from South Amer­ica said that a rea­son they joined At­lanta United was be­cause Martino asked.

The team broke train­ing camp in Braden­ton, Fla., in Jan­uary 2017.

The play­ers quickly be­gan to re­al­ize that Martino, though revered in South Amer­ica, didn’t carry him­self with an ex­pected ar­ro­gance.

They could talk to him. “We’ve all had coaches and you walk by any­where and you put your head down, this is awk­ward, don’t look and say hi, don’t look at him,” Parkhurst said. “Tata has never been like that.”

He was hon­est with them. Telling him ex­actly what he wanted al­most as soon as he re­al­ized it.

“We ap­pre­ci­ate that,” Le­an­dro Gon­za­lez Pirez said.

And, when he’s mad at a player, he will let them know. Striker Josef Mar­tinez said that may be what he will miss most about Martino.

He was funny and cu­ri­ous, once in­struct­ing a jour­nal­ist about Mate tea dur­ing train­ing camp near Or­lando be­fore the 2018 sea­son.

But it’s more than just con­ver­sa­tion and an abil­ity to re­late, even though he doesn’t speak the lan­guage of some of his play­ers or those he in­ter­acts with.

It’s that, as Parkhurst said, he’s hu­man.

Martino will take the mid­dle seat on air­planes so that the play­ers can stretch out their legs.

“That points out that he doesn’t want to be more than any of us,” Garza said. “He’s part of the group and has shown that to us and his hon­esty with us each and ev­ery day.”

And, of course, there’s the soc­cer and what he has taught the play­ers. His knowl­edge helped the team secure a CONCACAF Cham­pi­ons League berth. It pushed them to within one bad game of win­ning the Sup­port­ers’ Shield. It se­cured for him this year the Coach of the Year, Mar­tinez the MVP, Parkhurst and Le­an­dro Gon­za­lez Pirez top-five fin­ishes in De­fender of the Year vot­ing, a top-five fin­ish for Brad Guzan in Goal­keeper of the Year vot­ing, and Rookie of the Year for Ju­lian Gres­sel last year.

There’s not one thing that some of the play­ers said they will take from Martino.

“There’s been a mil­lion soc­cer things,” Lar­en­tow­icz said.

Lar­en­tow­icz said one of his fa­vorite days of the week is when Martino scouts the op­po­nent. Lar­en­tow­icz said Martino has an al­most prophetic way of know­ing what the op­po­nent is go­ing to do.

As an ex­am­ple, in the first con­fer­ence fi­nal game against the New York Red Bulls, dur­ing scout­ing Martino told the team that the Red Bulls would try to get the ball to the back post, and that the ball would be sent back to the penalty box for some­one to run onto.

That ex­act thing hap­pened. Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips scored, but the goal was called back be­cause an­other player was off­side.

“You go into a game feel­ing more con­fi­dent than you would oth­er­wise be­cause you feel like you have all the nec­es­sary in­for­ma­tion and what it takes to beat a team,” Lar­en­tow­icz said. “It’s al­most like you are sit­ting down to play a board game or video game and some­one is giv­ing you all the cheats. Some­one is telling you ex­actly what’s go­ing to hap­pen.”

At­lanta United’s play­ers won’t know if Martino has given them what they need to win the MLS Cup until the game starts.

They do know that play­ing for him has been spe­cial and that win­ning would be an ap­pro­pri­ate thank you.

“Very grate­ful to have him the past few years, and hope­fully we can leave a legacy for him,” Garza said.

Martino isn’t con­cerned about his legacy. He’s never been one to worry too much about things he can’t con­trol, such as the ram­pant spec­u­la­tion about his fu­ture.

He said he is sat­is­fied with the pro­cesses he and his coach­ing staff have put into place and that he is con­fi­dent that the club’s suc­cess will con­tinue un­der the next man­ager.

Martino does know one thing about his time with At­lanta United. And it’s true, whether the team wins its first MLS Cup. He said it so mat­ter-of-factly at the be­gin­ning of a tele­con­fer­ence that it was a bit jar­ring, but em­pha­sized that he is com­fort­able with his de­ci­sion to leave, even if he is anx­ious about the fi­nal game.

“It is the end,” he said.

At­lanta United head coach Ger­ardo Martino coaches up mid­fielder Chris Goslin against Charleston Bat­tery in June. To­day is Martino’s last chance to em­phat­i­cally val­i­date his de­ci­sion to coach an MLS ex­pan­sion fran­chise.

TO­DAY’S GAME Port­land Tim­bers at At­lanta United 8 p.m., Fox, UniMas Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium

Ger­ardo Martino never stays any­where for too long and that’s why his leav­ing At­lanta United af­ter just two seasons isn’t a sur­prise.

Nick Tewell holds a ban­ner of At­lanta United coach Ger­ardo Martino as the team ar­rives to the Mercedes-Benz sta­dium in April.

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