Atlanta United facing a very, very bad problem

Atlanta United head coach Gabriel Heinze  (left) confers with striker Josef Martinez (7) during the second half against Chicago Saturday, April 24, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Atlanta United head coach Gabriel Heinze (left) confers with striker Josef Martinez (7) during the second half against Chicago Saturday, April 24, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Atlanta United is facing a problem that no professional sports franchise wants: Its highly coveted manager is locked in what seems to be a battle of wills with its star player, the face of its franchise.

Unless either manager Gabriel Heinze or striker Josef Martinez backs down, and it doesn’t seem likely that either will based upon their personalities, club President Darren Eales may face a choice in which there will be no winner. He may have to get rid of either the manager or the player.

The situation surfaced Thursday when Heinze, asked about injured players, said that Martinez was still training by himself. This is the second week in which he has been training by himself. At first, it was believed it was because of his COVID-19 positive test that happened while in Venezuela in Brazil at the Copa America.

Eales put that rumor to rest last week when he said that Martinez was training to regain his fitness and not because of COVID. He said he thought Martinez would return for Saturday’s New England game.

That seems highly unlikely after Thursday’s news.

The question now is will Martinez ever play again for Atlanta United?

He is the most popular player in franchise history. He was the team’s first MLS MVP. He is the leading goal-scorer in its history. Supporters want the team to build a statue of him outside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The franchise even had fun with the idea by sending out miniature statues of Martinez in his “Kneel to the king” pose to certain season-ticket holders earlier this year. Plus, he signed a five-year contract extension just before the 2019 season. He is the team’s highest-paid player with a guaranteed salary of $3.9 million per year.

And on the other side ...

Heinze is in his first year as the team’s manager. The team waited on him for months to make a decision. It agreed to give him some personnel responsibilities that previous manager Frank de Boer didn’t get. Though it has yet to happen, it believes he is the man to restore the aggressive, attacking soccer the team once played under Gerardo Martino. You would have to think the team also knew that Heinze is horrible with the media. He can be indifferent to people around him. Conversely, he has shown some flexibility with his tactics and personnel decisions.

It would be easier if it was known what is going on between Heinze and Martinez. Heinze wouldn’t say Thursday. Martinez hasn’t been on the team’s interview schedule in weeks. Neither Eales nor Bocanegra granted an interview request Thursday. Instead, the team put out a weak statement citing a policy about not questioning Heinze’s decisions regarding personnel.

I describe it as weak because this seems serious.

The team, for the second consecutive season, is struggling. It has scored 13 goals in 12 games. It is not playing exciting, attacking soccer. It usually plays boring soccer. Plus, it is below the playoff line and is not trending upward.

All this, and it seems that Heinze is choosing to leave one of the more prolific strikers in MLS history on the outside of the team to prove a point that only a few know its importance.

That is why Eales and the franchise are now in a very tough situation.

If Heinze and Martinez can’t put aside whatever their differences may be, the team will be forced to act.

Atlanta United can’t stand and watch Heinze snub its best and its highest paid player, especially when the team desperately needs goals and desperately needs to get back into the playoffs after missing out for the first time last season. If it elects to move on from Martinez, the return likely wouldn’t be nearly as great because his value is not as high as it once was because of the knee injury suffered in the first game of the 2020 season. It sidelined him for the year. He has yet to show the same ferociousness in seven appearances this season. But he’s a proven scorer and those are very hard to find.

There’s also the issue that the team hasn’t exactly hit on many of its signings in the past few seasons, particularly its Designated Players, which would seem to be what would be needed. Why get rid of one and there’s no guarantee of finding someone as good?

On the other hand, if Heinze is told that Martinez must start, it undermines his authority, and he doesn’t seem like the type of person who would handle that well. If the team were to “mutually agree to part ways” with Heinze, which is the phrasing it used when de Boer was let go last year, it could set the franchise back years.

That is why Atlanta United may be in a very tough spot.

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