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Do the U.S. and Mexico care about the Gold Cup anymore?

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Gerardo 'Tata' Martino hire as close to 'ideal' as it gets for Mexico

Gerardo "Tata" Martino would have been at the very top of the list of realistic targets to replace Juan Carlos Osorio as full-time Mexico head coach when the search began last summer. And after months of negotiations and discussions, Monday's news that the Mexican federation (FMF) confirmed a manager of Martino's calibre on a four-year contract represents a major coup.

The news is a welcome boost for El Tri after a 2018 that peaked with a 1-0 victory over Germany at Russia 2018, saw them brought back down to earth with a seventh consecutive round-of-16 World Cup exit and then fizzled out in demoralizing fashion in the November trip to Argentina.

Such positivity regarding the appointment is unlikely to be found among the Hugo Sanchez-led legion of pundits who wanted a Mexico-born manager to fill the position, but Martino checks almost all the boxes the FMF's general sporting director, Guillermo Cantu, was looking to fill.

The former Newell's Old Boys player has managed at the very top of the sport, with Barcelona and Argentina. He has World Cup qualifying and tournament experience, likes his teams to play attractive football and is a well-rounded and balanced character off the field, known for developing unity within his squads. The only hole in Martino's résumé when it comes to the Mexico job is not having worked in the country, although the 56-year-old's two-year stint at Atlanta United in MLS will have given him some grounding in the CONCACAF region. And with other openings available, the studious former midfielder will have closely investigated the FMF from the bottom up before accepting the position.

A key trait for any foreigner working in the Mexican game is adaptability. There are intricacies, such as the way the media functions, the mentality of players and fans, the league system, style of play and the contradiction that the country is one of the world's most important national teams off the field but hasn't come close to consistent international achievements on it. Of the foreign managers to take the Mexico job without having worked for a sustained period in Liga MX, Sven-Goran Eriksson failed to get to grips with the intricacies, Osorio had his difficulties off the pitch, and even World Cup-winner Cesar Luis Menotti didn't last long.

This is where Martino's past experience provides a major plus: If there is one thing he's proved in his career, it is that he can adapt to new environments, both in terms of tactics and playing style, while maintaining an overriding philosophy. For example, Martino's Paraguay committed 25 fouls in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinal against Spain -- a match Iker Casillas has described as Spain's most difficult in winning the tournament. In 2018, Atlanta had only 30 percent of possession in the second leg of the MLS Eastern Conference final against New York Red Bulls, having won the first 3-0 with 51 percent and averaging 54 percent over the regular season.

Both stats go against what would be traditionally associated with the DNA of a Martino team but highlight a flexibility that perhaps Marcelo Bielsa -- one of Martino's influences and someone Cantu respects greatly -- doesn't possess.

At Atlanta United, Tata Martino took an expansion team and remarkably turned them into MLS Cup champions in just two seasons.
At Atlanta United, Tata Martino took an expansion team and remarkably turned it into MLS Cup champions in just two seasons.

Paraguayan football, in particular, is full of idiosyncrasies, from the mixed use of the Spanish and Guarani languages, the direct style of play and the use of a somewhat antiquated 4-4-2 system. On paper, Paraguayan football wasn't right for Martino, but he kept elements of the physicality and aerial prowess, often using the 4-4-2 formation and mixing it with more technically gifted players and a commitment to playing out from the back.

Moving to MLS with Atlanta United in 2016 might have been seen at the time as a step down for Martino, but crafting a new team, dealing with a new language, navigating the league's complicated rules and putting it all together to win the MLS Cup in the club's second season is a significant achievement. Other big-name managers have tried to do the same in MLS and failed.

The central accusation against the Argentine is that he hasn't won big tournaments. Taking a Newell's Old Boys team that was fighting relegation to win the Torneo Final in 2013 in Argentina, four Paraguayan league championships, the MLS Cup, Spanish Supercopa, a Copa America final with Paraguay as well as a World Cup quarterfinal appearance isn't seen as enough by some critics and fans. They point to Martino failing to win anything with Argentina -- La Albiceleste lost the 2015 and 2016 Copa America finals to Chile -- and losing out on the 2013-14 La Liga title with Barcelona.

In both jobs, Martino was able to count on fellow Rosario native Lionel Messi, but the Copa America finals with Argentina were lost on penalties, the first in Chile, and the second after dominating the game and some woeful finishing. As for La Liga, Martino's Barca lost out to a fine Atletico Madrid side on the final day of the season and still finished above Real Madrid.

If a couple of those results had swung Martino's way and he'd lifted a Copa America and La Liga, it's unlikely that Mexico would have had the chance to attract him. His career path would have been different, although those results wouldn't have reflected upon his coaching ability.

Martino's quality as a coach should not be in doubt. The real concern surrounding Martino is whether he is underestimating the pressure and expectation. The former Barca coach stressed that leaving Atlanta was "the right move for me and my family at this time" and told TDN that the "second year has been tough" in justifying his decision not to carry on.

Being Mexico manager is a whirlwind in which managers are sucked in -- the lure of helping Mexico step up and fulfill the nation's huge potential is great -- and then spat out. The difference between Mexico and jobs like Barcelona is that the pressure is fueled by expectations that are borderline unrealistic. Sometimes, in order to move two steps forward, you have to take a step back first, but there is little patience for that in Mexico, where not winning the Gold Cup is considered a major disappointment.

Martino does not have a magic wand and much will depend on how the younger generation of players develops at club level, but the Argentine is an exciting appointment and as close to an ideal choice as the FMF was ever likely to find when the search for Osorio's replacement began.


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