The manager has a poor record in cup finals, but his win on Saturday was a fitting end for a job well done in MLS
Gerardo “Tata” Martino has a history of success, just not in finals. The manager mentioned it in the lead-up to Saturday’s MLS Cup final, saying he had lost more than he won.
It’s a fair criticism, but Martino got it right Saturday.
Atlanta United delivered a 2-0 victory over the Portland Timbers to claim the MLS Cup crown and send off the departing manager with a trophy.
“Well, we won one, that’s good,” he said with a laugh after the match. “It’s been a long time. In 2013 with Newell’s and one title with Barca. Now this. After several disappointments, above all two in the Copa America. It’s a beautiful title and you celebrate after, obviously.”
Martino lost the 2011 Copa America final with Paraguay and the 2015 Copa America and 2016 Copa America Centenario finals when he was in charge of Argentina. On the club level, he guided Newell’s Old Boys to the 2013 Torneo Final title, though the team lost the subsequent Superfinal. But with Barcelona, he once again fell short, dropping the 2012-13 Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid.
Perhaps that’s why, while Martino enjoyed the triumph, he took it a bit more in stride than might be expected for a coach who has often watched other teams lift trophies while he’s left to figure out where he’s going to put another runners-up medal.
“For me, to talk about the final and the championship, it’s good, it’s beautiful. I’m happy, but what has happened over the length of these two years is what will stay with me. The work we did,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s necessary to win a title to think a job was well done.”
Getting across the finish line might be the goal for most, but Martino says he took joy in the journey. The team finished by winning MLS cup, but the manager doesn’t think it would have happened without last year’s disappointment against Columbus or the frustration against Toronto FC at the end of the regular season that meant the New York Red Bulls won the Supporters’ Shield.
For Martino, it also was about the work he was able to put in and the relationships he built. The 56-year-old’s last two jobs were at Barcelona and Argentina, places where the boss is asked to be much more of an executive than a teacher, more of a manager than a coach.
The Atlanta job allowed the him to get back to his roots, helping individual players and laying out a vision for a club. This is a man who coached in Paraguay for years, far removed from the spotlight of the world’s media coverage that now follows him.
“I said what happened to me here is I started to feel like a coach again from the perspective of putting a team together, signing players, giving the team an identity, see how the players are growing in the last two years,” he said. “A lot of times when you work at the top level, you feel like your part really isn’t as important, you don’t feel as involved in the growth.
“Here the same thing happened as happened at Newell’s. I felt like I participated, I felt happy, I felt I had an influence on the growth of the team and the growth of the players, and I’ll try to conserve this and try to think about this above all when I have the possibility to choose another job.”
That’s widely expected to be next week, with Martino set to take over the Mexico national team. His players were thrilled to send him off with a title.
“He’s left his legacy here in Atlanta, and moves on to a new project, I’m guessing that’s Mexico,” defender Greg Garza told Goal. “The main thing for me was the humbleness and the honesty of the person that he is off the field. He’s a great coach on the field, but I think the person he is off the field is really what leaves his legacy for all of us.”
One of the keys this season on the field was a willingness to adapt and flex away from the way he wanted to play to the way he needed to play. Atlanta went into the playoffs and dominated opponents, but even in Saturday’s second half the team wasn’t trying to play beautiful football.
That had been accomplished in the first half and was rewarded with the halftime lead on Josef Martinez’s relatively simple goal after a Timbers botch job at the back. A second goal from a set piece meant the Five Stripes could hang back and defend their lead, then enjoy the celebrations that followed.
“In the Toronto game, we saw that we weren’t as great in the build-up and we conceded a lot of goals. There were games before that which were a warning, but we didn’t lose. We changed, we got more solid,” Martino said.
Those changes implemented in the postseason saw Atlanta roll to the title, scoring nine goals and conceding twice. That progression brought Martino joy, as did his time in Atlanta. Now he’s moving into another role where he hopes he can continue improving his record in finals.
After the celebration. Obviously.
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