Atlanta, Tata and Me

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I didn’t sleep at all after we lost to Columbus.

I didn’t think losing would hurt as much as it did. Everything was new this year for me — the country, the city of Atlanta, the club. Even though I’d been here 10 months, I felt like I was still settling in by the time the playoffs came around. But I didn’t know how connected to Atlanta I had become.

And by losing that match, I felt like we let the city down. I’m sorry for that.

That night, lying in my bed, I kept thinking about what our coach, Tata Martino, had said to us before the match:

“Be calm, tonight. But don’t be afraid. Know what you’re playing for and know who you’re playing for. Be aware of the chance we have and the expectation that comes with it. Play for Atlanta.”

Play for Atlanta.

It was surreal to hear him say that. Because before this season, Tata had as much connection to Atlanta as I did.


And here’s the thing you need to understand: Tata is a legend. Legend is an understatement, actually. He’s an idol to so many of us in South America. He managed Cerro Porteño, a Primera División club in Asunción, Paraguay — where I grew up — and led it to a league title. He’s also managed Barcelona and the Argentine national team. But what so many of us — specifically Paraguayans — remember him for is 2010. That was the year he was the manager for Paraguay at the World Cup in South Africa, when we made it to the quarterfinals. I was only 16 years old at the time, but it was all anyone could talk about around our neighborhood. And El Tata was the man behind it all.

I watched our final match with almost everyone I knew. What I remember most is that, right after the match ended — we lost 1–0 to Spain — one of my friends looked around the room and said, “Man, imagine if Tata was coaching us some day? How cool would that be?”

We have this saying in Paraguay … I don’t know how to translate it to English perfectly.

Quiero contar contigo.

“I want to count with you,” is basically it. But what it means is: I want to rely on you, and I want to do this together.

It’s like a vote of confidence.

Last winter, someone very special wanted to count with me.

“This team … Atlanta, they want you to come play with them,” my agent, Dani, said to me over the phone last December. “And they have this gentleman who will be manager….”

“Who?” I said.

“… El Tata

El Tata?

He was talking about Gerardo (Tata) Martino.

My agent knew how much Tata meant to me. So he knew that what he was about to say next was going to get a reaction out of me.

“Tata wants to … call you,” he said.

“Call me?” I couldn’t believe it.

I was almost … how do I say this? Embarrassed, in a way. Like, What am I supposed to say to Tata Martino? What if he asks about my position or something about football and I sound stupid? I almost didn’t want the phone to ring. Can you believe that? I almost didn’t want to pick up the phone because of how nervous I was.

My dad was in the room with me at our home, and we were both sitting by the phone in complete silence. We just sat there. Waiting for it to ring.

And then it did. And I picked up. And I spoke to Tata for a few minutes.

And it turns out that this legend, this idol … he’s also the nicest guy in the world.

He told me he had an offer on the table for this new project in the United States, and that if he was going to go, he wanted me to go with him.

Quiero contar contigo, Miguel.”

I could barely believe what I was hearing.

“Coach,” I said, “it is such an honor that you’re even calling me. Of course I want to go to Atlanta with you.”

I didn’t know much about MLS. I didn’t know where Atlanta was. I didn’t know anything. But Tata was manager, and that was all I needed to know.

When I was little, I used to ruin my shoes all the time.

There would be cracks in the soles and big rips near the toe. I would come home from my elementary school holding my shoes and my mom would have the same look on her face every time.

“Miguel … not again,” she would say.

She didn’t need to ask how it happened. She always knew.

I would spend my lunch break kicking rocks, or anything that was shaped like a ball — wads of paper, pieces of wood, whatever. Where I grew up in Paraguay, there weren’t many people who could afford footballs. So my friends and I would kick whatever we could find, no matter how many shoes we ruined.

Fútbol, fútbol, fútbol.

It is everything to me. I got that from my dad.

He worked as a security guard on the docks of the Paraguay River in Asunción. If he got home early enough from work, we’d watch matches together on TV. I was probably six years old so I didn’t completely understand the game, but I knew that if my dad loved football, then I loved football.

Eventually my dad took me to train with Tres de Noviembrethe club in in our neighborhood. I played with other six- and seven-year-olds. And even though it was pretty much my first time playing organized football, I knew some of the positions and tactics from watching on TV.

But in real life, football was so much better.

When I was 14 years old I was ready to leave Tres de Noviembre for a new opportunity. I tried out for Club Nacional’s junior team, a top-division club from Asuncion.

My tryout wasn’t much of a tryout at all, though. Just some light drills and a discussion about tactics and playing style. I didn’t get to show off any of my talent. But Nacional didn’t really care. They made it pretty clear that I couldn’t play for them because of my size.

“He’s too skinny,” they told my father and me.

Too skinny? I was 14. What was I supposed to do about that

Because I had left Tres de Noviembre, I couldn’t go back and play for them. I was heartbroken. All I wanted to do was go back to my old club. Part of me wanted to quit. But I sat with my parents and grandparents and we had an important discussion.

They told me about the patience and dedication that it takes to earn what you want in life. The only reason I had this opportunity in the first place was because of how hard my mother and father had worked. I knew that … and I knew I had to put my head down and keep going.

My uncle — who I used to watch River Plate matches with every Sunday — suggested I try out for Cerro Porteño, another first-division club in Asunción.

Cerro train in Ypané which is about 40 minutes on the bus from my home. I knew that, if I made the team, it would be a big commitment for me to get there for training. My uncle’s boss knew a guy at Cerro, and when I went over to try out, he showed me this list of kids.

“Look,” he said, “there’s a hundred kids just like you who want to try out. So good luck.”

God blessed me that tryout. Because by the end of the session, the coach had made a new list — a list of players who’d made the team — and I was on it.

I spent the next few months waking up early to ride the bus to Ypané for practice at 7 a.m., and then coming back to town for classes. Those were long, lonely rides for a 14-year-old boy. But they were important.

I moved up through the youth teams at Cerro, but faced many challenges on the U15 and U16 teams. The coaches weren’t playing me because they said I was too skinny. For a long time I kept thinking about my other options — other places I could go. But I stuck with it.

When I moved up to the U17 team I  found myself with a demanding coach,  Hernán Acuña, who was very committed to his work. He asked me what position I played, and I said attacking midfielder.  He told me that he would give me five games to prove myself. I did well enough that I ended up playing the whole season and serving as team captain.  Thanks to Hernán giving me consistent playing time my confidence grew — and my professional soccer career started to take shape.

Cerro had given me a lot. I had been a fan of the club since I was a kid, and it still is a very important club to me. They gave me the opportunity to grow and I will always be thankful for that. But financially it was too difficult. Sometimes I would have to wait three to four months before receiving my salary. I couldn’t help support my family on a couple of hundred dollars every month. And I realized that my future was about more than playing football. It was about how I could use football to help my family.

So when I was looking to move to a bigger club I realized I needed an agent. And I had one request for anyone who wanted to represent me: They needed to help me find a new house. My family was living in a small rental with three rooms for seven us.

I was 18 years old and playing professional football in Paraguay. But I was still sharing a bed with my mom.

So I left for Lanús, a club in Argentina. That was a very difficult goodbye — leaving home for the first time — but one of the most important moves of my life. Because of that I was able to buy a more comfortable house for my family.

Argentina was an amazing experience. Football is an art there. Lanús is an excellent club and they made me feel at home. I scored in our league final last year against San Lorenzo and we won 4–0. I felt on top of the world. I thought maybe I could go to Europe, or a bigger club in Argentina in a few years.

And I thought one of those places is where I’d eventually end up.

Tata’s call to me last winter, though, changed everything. A few weeks after we spoke, Darren Eales, the president of Atlanta United, along with Carlos Bocanegra, the technical director, came down to Argentina to meet with me. They laid out this big presentation in front of me, my agent and my dad. They showed us the new stadium, facilities, etc. It was nice. But to be honest, that’s not what football is really about to me. It’s about the sport, the people, the feeling.

For me, this opportunity was about Tata.

He is Atlanta to me.

It might seem silly. (I have grown to love Atlanta for different reasons, too.) But it’s hard to describe the connection Tata has with the people of South America, and how many of us would do anything to play under him.

I learned quickly that the atmosphere in MLS matches is different than those in South America. Our first game I didn’t play well. I missed a good scoring opportunity and was upset at myself because we lost 2–1 to the Red Bulls. But still, after the match, people were clapping and chanting our names. I was amazed by that, but I didn’t really understand it to be honest. Why are you happy? In Argentina people would be cussing and whistling at the team.

It took time to understand that the culture is different here.  MLS is a really beautiful league, with great teams and facilities and supporters. It’s just different, is all. And that is good.

People want to say it’s a retirement league, but that’s nonsense. I’m 23 and I wanted to be here. I think it’s actually the opposite. It’s a place where young players can come and grow and really become something. The fact that people like Tata, Sebastian Giovinco and David Villa all want to be here means something.

I was scared I wouldn’t do well in America, or that I had made the wrong choice. And at first it wasn’t easy. The club was new, I was new. We were all making mistakes, but learning together — that was the important thing. I started working on my English, too. But … eh, I don’t know much yet. I’m working on it and taking classes.

My friends who I watched the world cup with in 2010 weren’t able to come to our playoff game this year because they didn’t have passports. But we have a WhatsApp group chat that I use to keep them up to date. I send them pictures and videos of everything — even the breakfast I have at the training ground, because everything is still new to me and I want them to experience it, too.

I wish they could be in some of our training sessions and see what Tata is like. The way he talks about the game, the way he runs training … it’s amazing to see in person. It’s still surreal to me, you know? This man was my idol, and now here we are in Atlanta, Georgia — together.

My first season in MLS was beautiful — I think that’s the best way I can describe it. I learned so much about myself, the United States and this city, specifically. I feel very lucky to be a part of this club.

Thank you, Atlanta.