Between absences and injuries, the El Tri manager has to figure out his best team for the Gold Cup. He may rely on what he learned in MLS to help
In two years in Atlanta, Tata Martino got pretty used to the southern city’s rhythms.
The Argentine manager took well to the ATL. The results he was able to get out of Atlanta United on the field, plus his affable demeanor, quickly made him a cult hero in a city that already has plenty of them. He was moved when fans raised a banner reading, in Spanish, “Not all heroes wear capes,” with an image of him with his signature sweater style along with it.
Yet as much as Martino became part of Atlanta and Atlanta became part of him, it’s still tough to imagine Martino eating at a Waffle House.
Did he ever enjoy the magic of rolling in after a late night and having his hash browns smothered, covered and capped? Thanks to eagle-eyed journalists who snapped him sipping a latte with Carlos Vela, we know Martino will stop by Starbucks. But with Martino back in Atlanta to coach the Mexico national team in a pre-Gold Cup friendly against Venezuela, this may be the week.
The 24-hour diner chain offers a less fancy cup of joe, but it’s what the 56-year-old might need this week as he tries to figure out what he’s going to do to make sure his team lifts the Concacaf championship. (Also, let’s be honest. Martino would go almost undetected at a Waffle House at 2 a.m. with the number of other distractions typically happening there around that time.)
“The last time I was here, when we came to promote these two friendly matches I had lunch with the president of the club. At night, a few of the players came to have a coffee and chat a bit,” Martino said at a news conference Tuesday. “They’re really great memories. Honestly, it’s really difficult to detach yourself and not have the connection with all the people, whether from the club or the city, after having had the last two beautiful years.”
It was time to go, though. Martino has said he was more interested in having the time in his personal life that being a national team manager allows than he was trying to find that time during a club season when it simply doesn’t exist.
Martino left Atlanta for Mexico having coached Argentina and Paraguay. He also dealt with one of the most demanding club jobs, coaching Barcelona. But, as he may have suspected when he took it and fully knows now, Mexico is a different job. Many of his best players haven’t turned up for the summer tournament, with Hector Herrera, Carlos Vela and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez among those doing other things this summer. Now, he’s had injuries hit. Hirving Lozano will miss the tournament with a knee injury. Miguel Layun is out because of a renal issue. Marco Fabian and Jose Ivan Rodriguez are both dealing with ankle issues.
Some of those names won’t exactly set the panic bells ringing for Mexico fans. And they should remain calm. Martino has coached all of two matches with El Tri heading into Wednesday’s friendly against Venezuela. Both were blowout wins. At this point, however, he’s simply losing bodies. Martino was set to cut down his 29-man provisional squad to 23 players. One of the cuts is a goalkeeper. With the injuries, he might only be telling one player the bad news.
While he may not have learned the secret to getting the butter-to-syrup ratio right on a fluffy waffle in Atlanta, Martino still took plenty from the experience that could help him in this potentially difficult time as Mexico coach.
First, he credited his time in MLS with reminding him how much he enjoys coaching. Not being the “selector” or the “manager” but a coach. He wants to work with young players and help make them better. He wants to watch them grow and achieve. This summer should allow plenty of that, even as Martino focuses on goal number one in winning the Gold Cup.
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“The reality is the important absences we have has opened the door for us to be able to see some other players, including some young players that we’d been wanting to see,” Martino said Tuesday. “If the majority of players were here, they probably would’ve been left out.
“Surely, the guys weren’t going to have this opportunity. Some players’ absences open the door to others, and it’s up to them to be able to take advantage of the opportunity they now have. But, no matter what, those who are here are all players who I’m interested in having. That’s why we didn’t do a 40-man list. We had what we needed to have, keeping in mind those who couldn’t be here because of different circumstances.”
In Atlanta, he also learned (or was reminded how) to be adaptable. Initially, the style Martino wanted to play was winning games but fell short of winning a championship. The coach had to sacrifice some of his ideals to modify his style into something that would allow Atlanta United to get to the MLS Cup final and eventually lift the trophy in front of thousands of fans in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where Martino returns on Wednesday.
How he will apply the lessons he learned in Atlanta is still an open question. Will it lead to him abandoning the 4-3-3 he wants Mexico to line up in? Will he ask certain players to modify their game? He has options. Rodolfo Pizarro could play as more of a playmaker in front of two central midfielders. Jesus Gallardo can play as a winger with Roberto Alvarado on the other side. Mexico has enough depth to contend for the Gold Cup despite the absences, Martino just has big choices to make about how to win the trophy.
They’re decisions he’ll have to ponder heading into the tournament, but eventually he’ll be able to deliver the news quickly, confidently and in just the right lingo for players to buy in. Just like asking for those hash browns scattered and smothered, peppered and topped.