MARIETTA, Ga. — It’s Monday morning at Atlanta United’s training facility and players comprising the MLS All-Star squad are making their way into one of the building’s meeting rooms.
For players from the host club, this is a day like any other; they are at home. However, there’s some visible fatigue on the faces of those who flew long distances to be here.
In front of a large video screen stands Atlanta United manager Tata Martino. For the next few days, he will have the tricky task of coaching a thrown-together group of players in preparation to face Italian giants Juventus in the 2018 MLS All-Star Game.
On the one hand, the game is an exhibition with no bearing at all on standings or the playoff games that lie ahead. Indeed, in some ways only bad things — injuries, specifically — can happen. Yet the occasion is also a showcase for MLS and a chance for league executives, team owners, sponsors, potential investors and the like to meet, talk and network.
As such, there is a strong desire for everyone connected to the league to see the All-Stars to do well, even though the makeshift nature of the squad and unlimited substitutions can make achieving any semblance of rhythm difficult.
“The last thing we want to do is get embarrassed,” Atlanta United defender Michael Parkhurst says. “I think that alone pushes guys on Wednesday to perform well individually, collectively; show well for the league, show well for your team and yourself. I think that’s the most important thing.”
Managing those conflicting forces is Martino’s job for the next three days and, while he does that, he has extended the courtesy of allowing ESPN FC a glimpse of how he, his staff and the players will prepare for the game ahead.
Monday’s training session
When Martino smiles, he gives the aura of a gregarious, favorite uncle, the kind you gravitate toward at family reunions. But when his mood turns serious, there is a definite presence. Maybe you remember this is a man who has coached great players like Lionel Messi and big teams like Barcelona and Argentina. Regardless, he has a way of demanding attention.
A seven-minute meeting details the drills that will be used during practice, which include a possession exercise with free attacking players occupying the wings. Martino also explains how playing time will be doled out on Wednesday, with most players expected to get 30-45 minutes. And, with assistant Dario Sala acting as interpreter for the team’s non-Spanish speaking contingent, Martino outlines goals for the week.
“What’s most important is to enjoy what we’re going to be doing,” he says. “Enjoy the moment and the game. But we want to win the game as well.”
The tone has been set — the implication is that this is more business trip than vacation — and Martino’s practice-field demeanor reinforces his message. He isn’t one to observe and leave all the coaching to his assistants; the 55-year-old barks, cajoles and encourages. There are shouts of “Sigue!” (“Keep going!”), “Buena!” (“Good!”) and the occasional “Yes!”
“A coach with this kind of energy for a friendly game; it’s awesome,” Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri said. “I’ll personally learn a lot from him, he’s a great coach, with lots of experience.”
Parkhurst is in his second year playing under Martino and says the Argentine has placed more demands him than any other coach, both physically and mentally. As such, what he sees in this practice is not unusual.
“The level obviously is a little bit different when you’ve got all all-stars out there,” Parkhurst says. “He’s got more to cheer about than in a normal training session. But he’s trying to motivate guys, get them going a little bit. Some guys had games, traveled yesterday, didn’t want to do too much today. He’s just trying to say: ‘Hey, let’s get going here.'”
Monday’s media duties
Martino is discovering there is little downtime during all-star week as he gets shuttled from station to station: A press conference here, an interview there. Among his commitments is an interview with ESPN FC, in which he goes into further detail about his approach to the days ahead.
Martino confesses that he is up against some difficult realities, one of which is that he is preparing two teams simultaneously: Three days after the All-Star Game, Atlanta United is scheduled to play improving Toronto FC.
Another challenge is time or, rather, as lack of it. Two days is not enough time to implement a tactical plan for Juventus. It will not stop him from trying, though.
“Even though it’s difficult in such a short week, with little preparation, we’ll probably talk more about trying to come up with a style of play, and put a profile together of how to play Juventus on Wednesday,” Martino says through an interpreter. “We want to be able to put on a show for the rest of the league. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about how to play against Juventus. I don’t know if we’ll watch film, but we’ll definitely prepare for them based on the last two matches that they’ve played throughout their preseason.”
Martino is aware that Juventus are without the likes of Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic and Blaise Matuidi, all of whom are back in Turin having just returned from post-World Cup breaks, along with new signing Cristiano Ronaldo. However, regardless of available personnel, there is a distinctive style to how the Bianconeri play.
“They’re a team that, when other teams let them, like to play out of the back when they can, but they’re also a team that tries to play and [impose] their style of play on the game,” Martino says. “And of course, they’re an Italian team, so they like to sit back and counter-attack when they get the opportunity. We’ll have a little bit different situation in this game, but that’s more or less how they like to play.”
Beyond tactical considerations are those of personnel. New York City FC forward David Villa has pulled out having failed to recover from injury but the elephant in the room is the decision of LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic to skip the All-Star Game, having scored a hat trick Sunday night against Orlando City.
“I’m completely unfamiliar with the decision and his reasons,” Martino says. “All I know is I watched him play 90 minutes last night. In reality, I’m not disappointed. I don’t have an opinion on it because I don’t know the motives for his decision.”
Tuesday’s training session
One somewhat tongue-in-cheek comment, which circulates among those in attendance, is that this 80-minute, open-to-the-public practice was the longest in all-star game history.
But Martino doesn’t care as he puts his defense through a withering level of pressure. The emphasis, which takes up the bulk of the session, is on trying to play out of the back, while not ignoring the need to press opponents in possession.
“Playing out of the back is difficult, because you have to take chances with the ball,” Parkhurst says. “Of course we want to avoid mistakes in the defensive third, but he wants to push you and play out of the back when it’s a little bit tight. But he gives you the confidence that, if you make a mistake, we deal with it. But keep playing.”
The play of the presumed first-choice defense makes for rough viewing at times. There are turnovers galore and the attack looks more adept at pressing than the back line does at building out.
There’s even a humbling own goal when one midfielder blindly plays the ball back to Brad Guzan, only to discover that the goalkeeper hadn’t recovered from providing support to one side of the penalty area.
An inside look at #MLSAllStar training in this edition of Off Pitch.
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) July 31, 2018
Wednesday’s pregame meeting
Following a meal at around 3:30 p.m. ET, the players assemble in a meeting room at the team hotel where Martino delivers his tactical plan. In the end, he does show clips of Juventus’ matches in the International Champions Cup. The meeting lasts about 20 minutes, which is truncated by Atlanta United standards.
“I think he keeps it short because the guys understand that it’s just a friendly,” Parkhurst says. “But he wants to get his point across that we want to be serious, we want to win the game. You’re only playing 45 minutes, so give it everything you’ve got.”
There is enough time for Martino to point out that Juventus has played 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 in preseason. If it goes with the latter that night, MLS midfielders Alexander Ring and Tyler Adams are told to play along the same line in front of the defense.
Martino is adamant that playmaker Miralem Pjanic not be given time on the ball to “get comfortable” and spray long passes to the wing, while players are urged to be mindful of Sami Khedira making runs from deep when Juventus has possession out wide.
Overlapping runs are also important to the Italian champions, especially when the point of attack has been switched, but Martino doesn’t want Ignacio Piatti to come all the way back and defend. Above all else, the message is to “stay compact” and watch for the long ball from Pjanic.
Meanwhile, when the all-stars gain possession, Martino wants to go vertical immediately and exploit the speed of MLS leading scorer Josef Martinez. If the pass is not available, though, the focus must be possession; Juventus’ press is a grey area in terms of timing, but Martino’s message is: “Don’t be sloppy with the ball.”
Specific defensive set-piece assignments are given, with players told who to mark or where they should be in a wall. Later, inside the locker room prior to kickoff, Sala will remind players to take a last look at these tasks, which are posted on video screens.
Attacking dead-ball situations are also discussed in the meeting; Martino notes that Juventus likes to zone mark with three defenders around the 6-yard box on corner kicks and suggests playing short if there are numerical advantages.
It might all sound quite basic, but it never hurts to deliver reminders. Martino’s parting message is directed toward the team’s mentality.
“You are representing the entire MLS today,” he says. “Represent it with honor. The intensity you bring is non-negotiable.”
“[Martino] wants us to play today,” Parkhurst says. “He doesn’t want us to just kick the ball long and play safe. He wants us to go out there and challenge ourselves, put in a good performance out on the field, something that’s going to make the fans appreciate what we do. I think guys will be a little bit cautious, but the blueprint is there.”
— Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle) August 1, 2018
There is no pregame speech from Martino as there would be ahead of an Atlanta United game — perhaps due to the reality that this is a friendly — but his preparation has its intended effect.
Under little Juventus pressure, the all-stars are relatively assured playing out of the back. Pjanic is given little room to maneuver thanks to solid defensive work by Miguel Almiron, who is normally known for his attacking exploits. Martinez is looking dangerous on the counter.
Slack defensive work leads to a Juventus goal in the 21st minute: Matheus Pereira is given too much time to swing in a cross from the left wing and Andrea Favilli scores with a deft header. However, Martinez equalizes five minutes later, heading home from close range following a melee in the 6-yard box.
A steady stream of substitutions — a total of 26 players see the field for MLS — compromises the rhythm of the game, but chances still come. Valeri has a glorious opportunity in the 82nd minute but, while his shot beats goalkeeper Mattia Perin, Mehdi Benatia is there to clear.
The game goes to penalties, in which Juventus prevails 5-3 after Bradley Wright-Phillips misses for the home side, but Martino is upbeat at his postgame press conference.
“I think the team did a good job,” he says. “I thought for large parts of the game we were able to control Juventus and we were also able to control possession for large stretches of the game. I think especially in the first half, the team was able to get out on some really good counter-attacks and taking advantage of that and playing quickly to counter. Taking into account that we only had about two days together, I think everyone did an excellent job in the first half and the second half.”
“Tata’s tactics were very clear,” defender Aaron Long says. “We went over it on the field, on the board, in video. He is a coach that really wanted to win, so he tried to make it as clear as possible and I think it showed out there. I think the players respected [Tata’s approach] and I think we took it very serious because of that.”
While it is easy to scoff at preparation for a mere exhibition match as being anything but intense, what this experience revealed was that, in the world of Tata Martino, there’s minimal easing off the gas.
The outcome, in front of 72,317 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, was a watchable game that highlighted a notable occasion for the league.