Tata Martino could've come in to MLS with his nose turned up. He had managed Argentina, one of the world's most important national teams. He coached Barcelona, one of the world's greatest club teams. Now he deigned to come to the United States and take over an expansion team.
But it wasn't like that.
Instead, his players, who sent him off in December with a win in the MLS Cup final, remember the coach as a humble, straightforward figure who became beloved in the locker room and by fans.
"I think the thing that probably stuck out to me the most is just how humble and how honest he is," defender Greg Garza said last month ahead of the MLS Cup final. "Off the field, he’s a guy you can probably talk to about the game or talk about anything with and he’ll give you a straight answer - and tell you what he’s feeling or what he thinks about you on the dot. There’s nothing he hides.
"He’s the kind of person that can sit in the middle seat on the plane on travel days, and he doesn’t complain about it. He doesn’t want to make himself feel a bit more special than any of us. He’s a part of this group, a part of this team."
Garza was one of several players Martino and Atlanta’s front office brought in to help build a team that won MLS Cup in its second year of existence. The team was made up of a mix of players - some MLS veterans, some rising South American stars, players who came to the team through the MLS Draft or trades.
While Martino won’t build a national team like he did with signings in Atlanta, he will need to get a locker room to gel. It’s something he takes seriously and something that should serve him well as he looks to find places for veterans like Andres Guardado and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez while making room for a new generation of players like Erick Gutierrez and Raul Jimenez, all fit around rising star Hirving Lozano.
“I’ve seen teams where there are bad relationships in the locker room, but they can leave that aside and win on the field. For me, I’m not satisfied with any part of that," Martino said before the final. "It’s very important to have a good group of people that get along well, where the people come in to work and do it in a happy way, that they enjoy being at the club.
"And it’s not just the players, but the coaching staff, the trainers also, the kit-man, the people who work around the club. In these two years, we’ve been able to work in a marvelous environment with exceptional facilities. I think that good energy over the course of time transmits itself on to the field."
Atlanta's players enjoyed the environment Martino fostered and backed him for success in his next step. His players say El Tri are getting a coach that is humble but also speaks clearly and directly.
"He’s an excellent manager. He has a lot of good values as a person. He makes things very clear with short and direct messages," center back Leandro Gonzalez Pírez said. "On the playing field, it’s the same. He speaks about working on tactics very clearly and knows a lot about football, so we’re going to miss him a lot."
Asked to single out a few characteristics he'll miss about the manager, midfielder Miguel Almiron struggled to pinpoint one thing. "I think I’m going to miss everything about Tata," he said. "Not just me, but my teammates, the fans in Atlanta. He’s a great person, and as everyone knows he’s a great manager."
A great manager who left a big mark on Atlanta. Now he’s on to his next challenge, one where he won’t have some of the same luxuries he had with the Five Stripes.
There is no front office to search for players or owner to spend on reinforcements. It’s just Martino working with the same group of players for a few days at a time during FIFA windows.
Yet, that’s the kind of coaching Martino said he wanted to get back to. It seems the intensity of Barcelona and dealing with only the game’s greats and soon-to-be greats left him feeling empty. Getting a team and actually teaching and helping players evolve with Atlanta United brought him joy.
"I said what happened to me (in Atlanta) 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," Martino 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."
Now he’s chosen to take on the challenge of managing El Tri, one where he’ll have plenty of opportunities to put his fingerprints on the team and - he hopes - build a long-term project that takes the Mexico national team to new heights and adds to an already-impressive legacy.