Why Josef Martinez is no longer in Atlanta United’s plans

During his healthy prime, Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez was like a cannonball, ripping through opposing defenses with the hyper-focused goal of putting the ball in their net.

He could do it with his head. He could do it with his left foot. He could do it with his right foot. He could score with the grace of an acrobat or the brute force of a weightlifter.

He was the most feared striker in MLS.

That is why Thursday’s report by the Athletic that Martinez is no longer a part of Atlanta United’s plan going forward was sad for the team’s supporters but also inevitable. The decision made from a volatile mix of Martinez’s attitude, his recent injury history and confining MLS roster rules.

Vice President Carlos Bocanegra is a big believer in locker room chemistry. So the team has a history of not tolerating players who express dissension. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was sent off in a complicated deal after criticizing then-manager Frank de Boer, for example.

Martinez has rarely held his tongue when displeased. He once said watching LAFC’s free-flowing soccer made him want to cry, which was a reference to the more deliberate style the team was playing under de Boer.

But part of his fate may have been sealed when he calmly said this after a 3-0 loss to Austin:

“So we play because we have to play but in the training, some players don’t have that energy,” he said. “Some people don’t know what we have to do or they don’t recognize or they don’t appreciate the jersey. That’s probably the most problem. The injuries are not a problem. We play soccer, and you can have injuries every day. And some people still think, because we lost these guys, we lost. We make a mistake, we all make a mistake. And we are professionals. There are no kids anymore.

“And if you come here, you have to know what we have to do. So if you’re not coming here for 100 percent, you probably don’t have to join this, this club to play. So the people, it’s a message for everyone, if you want to bring in some guys, it’s because they want to play here and not because it’s business. And that’s happened for a long time.”

Before saying that, Martinez hinted that he was beginning to consider what was next in his career, saying that perhaps the team needed different players.

ExploreAtlanta United suspends Josef Martinez for one week

Martinez’s frustrations boiled over again after a loss at Portland when he reportedly kicked over a buffet table. That resulted in he and manager Gonzalo Pineda getting into an argument. Martinez was suspended for one game for conduct detrimental to the team. Pineda said there were numerous instances of Martinez’s poor conduct during the season.

Still, he led the team with nine goals despite being used mostly as a sub in the second half of the season.

Pineda frequently said that Martinez no longer started because the other strikers fit better within his preferred system. It seemed clear that Martinez was no longer as quick as he once was. A torn ACL that required two surgeries in 2020 and another procedure in 2022 had taken away a bit of his instant burst that once saw him blow past centerbacks with a frightening ease on his way to scoring 82 goals and securing three club trophies and an MVP from 2017-19. Martinez didn’t seem able this season to consistently threaten defenses with runs behind their back lines. To get touches often required him having to come back down the field to receive the ball. When he was in the penalty box, crosses often eluded him or weren’t on target. That, combined with Pineda’s tactics, saw him finish the season with 410 touches, which was 18th on the team. It was less than Miles Robinson, who played in just nine games.

Bocanegra may have been able to tolerate all of this in hopes that Martinez could regain his form but doing so is a gamble within MLS rules.

Each club is allowed three Designated Players. They often come with large transfer fees, large salaries and certainly large expectations. When they fail to consistently produce, teams often struggle. Two of the team’s DPs, Martinez and Luiz Araujo, struggled. It’s a small part of why the team failed to qualify for the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.

Whether Bocanegra believes that Martinez’s attitude was no longer tolerable, his skill set too diminished with no hope for a revitalization, or simply a need for both parties to start fresh, the decision seemed inevitable. Sad, but inevitable.

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