Ambitious Atlanta United Make Bold Statement with Hire of Gerardo Martino

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistSeptember 30, 2016

David Goldman/Associated Press

Before the business end of the 2016 Major League Soccer regular season begins, the hype for the 2017 campaign has started thanks to ambitious expansion side Atlanta United. 

Atlanta, who will join Minnesota United as newcomers to the league next year, stepped into the spotlight with their hire of former Barcelona and Argentina boss Gerardo "Tata" Martino on Wednesday. 

Martino will take control of a club that has made it clear from day one that they want to contend in year one. Before inking Martino to the role of head coach, Atlanta secured the signature of Trinidad and Tobago international Kenwyne Jones to be the club's main scorer. Argentinian winger Hector Villalba and Irish midfielder Chris McCann are also part of the growing group of new recruits. 

Jones will be a part of Atlanta's first roster in 2017.
Jones will be a part of Atlanta's first roster in 2017.John Raoux/Associated Press

The 53-year-old Martino, who finished second in the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Copa America with Argentina, enters MLS with high expectations given his pedigree. 

But it won't be smooth sailing from the start for Martino, since he'll have to navigate the murky waters of the MLS acquisition methods. Martino admitted he's familiar with the basic rules of MLS but is still working on understanding the intricacies. 

“The first thing you do when you become involved in a project like Atlanta United is to become informed," Martino said through a translator during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. "I started to become familiar with the rules since there was a possibility of coming here.

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David Goldman/Associated Press

"The fundamental rules I do know," Martino said. "I don’t know all the rules, but I work with people that know them well. I do think that the rules that exist in the league are made to create a good competitive level." 

The key for the Atlanta front office over the next month is to surround Martino with a coaching staff that understands the ins and outs of MLS in order to build the best roster possible in the club's expansion season. 

“We’re hoping to get the support staff lined up over the next month," Atlanta United president Darren Eales said. "We’re going to put together the best support staff possible that will give Tata the best possible platform to ease into MLS." 

Setting up the staff as early as possible would benefit Atlanta greatly, because once the final whistle is blown on MLS Cup on December 10, the process to get ready for 2017 will ramp up considerably. 

David Goldman/Associated Press

Three days after MLS Cup, Atlanta and Minnesota will participate in a five-round expansion draft. If Martino and his yet-to-be-named staff do enough research beforehand on the players available, they should be able to get plenty of value for their opening season. 

There's no guarantee those players will remain on the roster as the club grows in further seasons, but having five MLS veterans in the squad will help ease the transition into the league as Atlanta shape their identity. Only two players drafted by Orlando City in the 2014 Expansion Draft remain on their roster, while New York City FC have four. 

NYCFC got great value out of the process, as they acquired Thomas McNamara with the 16th selection of the draft; Orlando didn't, as they traded away a few players for various types of compensation. Atlanta most likely won't be able to benefit from Orlando's strategy due to the drop in picks from 10 to five. 

With the Expansion Draft minimized, Atlanta will have to rely on their scouting network and the style of play Martino wants to institute in order to mold the rest of the roster. Having a high-profile manager like Martino should help the club attract some big names that may not have considered the Southeastern United States as a possible destination in the past. 

“It’s a project that starts from scratch, it’s not just shaping team, it’s finding players and establishing a philosophy," Martino said. "It’s not a job proposal you find every day." 

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JUNE 26: Gerardo Martino of Argentina clls out against Chile during the Copa America Centenario Championship match at MetLife Stadium on June 26, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Chile defeated Argentina 4-2 in penalty kicks. (Ph
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

"Our job is to present a philosophy mainly for the first team and then work in conjunction with the academy to make sure this philosophy aligns," Martino said. 

One thing potential acquisitions for Atlanta have to keep in mind is the track record of recent expansion coaches and foreign managers in the league. The last few years have given us plenty of examples in the failure department. 

NYCFC sacked Jason Kreis after one season and Adrian Heath was unable to survive year two at Orlando City. If you look back deeper in the history books, Montreal, Vancouver and Portland all let go of their initial managers before their second season of existence ended. 

Managers from overseas also don't have the best history in MLS, with Owen Coyle's disappointing tenure with the Houston Dynamo being the most recent example. 

Building a team from scratch won't be an easy task for Martino, but he has some assets that the previously mentioned expansion bosses didn't have. He has a certain amount of clout when it comes to recruiting potential signings due to his previous positions. 

We won't see former Barcelona players or Argentinian first-teamers in Atlanta's first starting XI, but we will see a good amount of talent from all parts of the world aligned for the opening whistle of the 2017 season due to the connections Martino has across the globe. 

One thing Martino would be wise to exploit is the success of South American designated players in MLS. Some of the best attacking midfielders the league has seen have come from that part of the world, which just happens to be a portion of the globe Martino knows well. 

Jun 18, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; Argentina manager Gerardo Martino  directs his players during the second half of Argentina's 4-1 win over Venezuela in quarter-final play in the 2016 Copa America Centenario soccer tournament at Gillette Stadium. Mandato
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

If he is able to pluck a Diego Valeri or Ignacio Piatti type of player from South America, Martino won't have to worry too much about chance creation with Jones already in the fold at striker. Martino's background in youth development could also help Atlanta work the South American market when it comes to the up-and-coming stars. 

FC Dallas' Carlos Gruezo, Luciano Acosta of D.C. United and Orlando City's Cristian Higuita are just a few of the young South Americans who have made an impact right away with their respective clubs in MLS. The young talent is there, it's just a matter of Martino and his staff finding the right players for the system they want to play in. 

If Atlanta can implement that strategy as well as attract a big name or two from Europe, they have a real shot at becoming one of the six playoff teams in the Eastern Conference around this time next year. It's a long process to get there, but Atlanta have taken some ambitious steps to get there in their first year. 

Martino has plenty of factors going against him as he enters MLS due to the lack of success from others in charge of expansion sides, but the Argentinian is different than all of his predecessors. With Martino instilled as head coach, Atlanta have the opportunity to alter how first-year sides in MLS approach their entrance into the league. 

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

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