For soccer purists, Tata Martino’s lone season as Barcelona manager in 2013 was exemplified by his team having less than 50% of possession in a match for the first time since 2008. Martino spent the last two years managing an Argentine national side that lost to Chile in two consecutive South American finals before ending up as the manager for Atlanta United FC’s inaugural season. He has the most accomplished resume of any manager in league history. His style of high pressing and direct play will have a more enthusiastic audience than the square peg he encountered at Barcelona. His recent failures of living up to the impossible expectations of Barcelona and Argentina makes us forget how highly rated he was as a tactician molded after Marcelo Bielsa.
MLS expansion allows us to see a team built in real time, from scratch. The most common approach is to sell a long term vision to supporters: the excitement of that first season will overshadow results as long as there is a there there. And while all sides share the overarching goal of winning a championship, signals of philosophy and intent are in the nuances of player signings. Atlanta presented Martino with the unique opportunity to mold a club from nothing. In return, Martino gave the club a credibility in the market of South America. Consider the following signings:
- Miguel Almiron, 22, Lanus (designated player)
- Hector Villalba, 21, San Lorenzo (designated player)
- Josef Martinez, 23, Torino
- Leandro Pirez, 24, Estudiantes
- Yamil Asad, 22, Velez Sarsfield
Almiron, an $8 million transfer, is expected to carry the creative load as the attacking midfielder and conductor of counter attacks (the Paraguayan already has somewhat crossed over with a brief Hollywood profile). Argentines Villalba and Asad provide width, with Venezuelan Martinez stretching defenses up front. Chilean Carlos Carmona will be expected to keep play ticking in midfield. The ball will move fast and direct, with a heavy focus on attacking transitions - as per any Bielsa disciple. In a vacuum, one can imagine the possibilities as a youth developing manager gets hold of perhaps the most talented early 20’s attack in the league, playing with a distinct South American style in a foreign league. This midfield combination has already gone viral with goals built on one touch passing, movement, and curved goals from outside of the box into the upper corner.
With an eye towards understanding the long travel times and artificial turf influenced nuances of playing in the MLS, Atlanta added the experience of captain Michael Parkhurst and Tyrone Mears to the backline (with a nod towards Juventus, their announcement of Parkhurst as club captain with a Twitter video signaled their relationship with a modern audience). Keeper Brad Guzan moves over midseason. Finally, 16-year-old youth academy product Andrew Carleton symbolizes the future aspirations of a side building from within.
For one season in Atlanta at least, we have this South American influenced side. In Angels With Dirty Faces, Jonathan Wilson outlines the social and economic reasons for why Argentine players move abroad. The MLS has directly benefitted from this, with sides ranging from the Portland Timbers to Real Salt Lake building around an Argentine playmaker (this also trends against the much thought of demise of the #10). Martino mentioned the relaxed environment of MLS and America as a key reason for accepting the Atlanta challenge.
The country’s player and managerial pipeline to the world shows no signs of slowing, and Atlanta joins teams likes Atletico Madrid and Sevilla with its mini-Argentine foundation. The MLS has always been a melting pot league as it strives to find what an American soccer club plays like. Regardless of whether the Martino experiment busts in a season or builds to its on-paper potential, the MLS conversation is certainly richer for having taken it on in the first place.
Regardless of league or country, the question remains: how do you build a soccer team from scratch? Do you begin with a midfield? Build a defense? Through youth or experience? Counter attack, possess the ball, or a bit of both?
Atlanta’s team building ethos is especially poignant when contrasted with fellow expansion side Minnesota United. The midwest club has taken the traditional approach to MLS team building with league veterans combined with the occasional big name. Going a step beyond, we’ve seen a variety of approaches to building a squad throughout the Europe in recent years. RB Leipzig implemented their policy centered around youth and re-sell value, then surprised or dismayed the Bundesliga with their success. Danish side FC Midtjylland took their own variety of metrics based team building to the extreme - and a domestic league title.
With a combination of off field financial restraints and physicality, the MLS is no easy league to defeat. Stylistically, it has much in common with the second ball influenced Premier League than the controlled matches that Martino is used to. Keeper Alec Kann describes the contrasting ideology between the free flowing Platonic passing and the reality of direct play and grinding out results. But we’ve never seen a side built like Atlanta before, much less in its inaugural season. The approach from a scouting perspective is sound: sign young, highly rated players, and let them grow together. A robust analytics department scours the world for players that fit into the team structure. How this translates onto the field, of course, is the challenge.
The “Moneyball” strategy in MLS, defined as a reaction to David Beckham’s move to the L.A. Galaxy in 2007, posited that eleven players paid $100,000 a season was more effective than pairing two high salaried, designed players with nine journeyman. The league’s approach to teambuilding has become much more nuanced in the decade since. While the salary cap puts sides on an equal playing level, the how remains a vision unique to the architect. In answering how Martino will transition to a new league, culture, and plays, Parkhurst added that soccer is the language we all understand. The differences, the small margins that define the aesthetics, are in the accents.