Atlanta United defeated Colorado 1-0 on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Atlanta United)

Atlanta United comes to Pity Martinez’s defense

Atlanta United’s Pity Martinez didn’t speak to reporters in the locker room after Saturday’s 1-0 victory against Colorado at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

His actions coming off the field and on the bench probably said as much as needed about what appears to be his frustration following another goal-less, assist-less performance in his first start since recovering from an injury. The Designated Player has zeros in both columns in six appearances this season.

After being subbed in the 71st minute for Hector Villalba, Martinez appeared to yell at someone on the bench. He kicked at a chair. He slapped his hand down on another chair. He kept looking toward the coaching staff to his right.  A few minutes after Martinez was subbed off, Atlanta United scored the winning goal.

“Maybe it wasn’t his best game, but it doesn’t matter,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “It was his first start in a long time. He has to get used to the surface and style of play in MLS. He’s our No. 10 normally, and we want him close to Josef Martinez. They have a good combination, and hopefully in the future, we will see a lot more of that combination play.” 

Martinez developed a reputation at River Plate in Argentina as a technically gifted player with an eye for the amazing goal and delicate pass. He led River Plate to the Copa Libertadores title in December, helping him to earn the South American Player of the Year award. Because of the quality of league play in Argentina, and Martinez’s talent, the transition to MLS figured to be smooth. It has been anything but.

Though he has shown flashes, Martinez has failed to consistently impact any game in which he has played for Atlanta United this season. The closest was at Monterrey when he was the target of Rayados’ defenders and was fouled 10 times.

De Boer has tried Pity Martinez out wide and on Saturday, as a No. 10, or attacking midfielder, under Josef Martinez.  Pity Martinez took one shot. Like his five others in league play, and most taken in the Champions League, the shot was hit from way outside the penalty box.

To be fair to Pity Martinez, there was no room in which he could operate in the middle of the pitch because Colorado played two lines of defenders just a few yards from each other. The Rapids’ final third was packed with 10 of their players behind the ball. With few passing angles or alleys, Martinez, who was credited with 68 touches, created one chance in the game.

De Boer said he thinks Martinez’s production will improve as he plays more minutes. De Boer said Martinez is still not 100 percent healthy after a short preseason with Atlanta United and then a hamstring injury he suffered while playing with the Argentine national team.

“I think he has to get stronger physically,” de Boer said. “Then he can deal with the other things that I mentioned previously. If he gets back to a full 100 percent, cause in my point of view he isn’t quite 100 percent yet. If he comes to that, he will get there. It takes time. I’m convinced that when he gets to 100 percent, we are going to see a difference and have a lot of fun with him.”

Though it was likely more to do with the opponent and its tactics when compared to Colorado, Atlanta United’s offense has looked more fluid and dynamic when Pity Martinez hasn’t been in the starting lineup. Three of its best games in league — a loss at Columbus, a win at New England and a loss against Dallas — came with Martinez out injured or coming on as a sub.

Martinez’s teammates came to his defense after the game. Darlington Nagbe said when he gets the ball that Martinez is the first player he looks to pass to because of play-making abilities shown in training.

“I am confident in him, and I am going to give him the ball every single time, and it is just a matter of time before everyone can see what he can do,” Nagbe said.

Leandro Gonzalez Pirez compared Martinez’s qualities  to his predecessor’s, Miguel Almiron. The Paraguayan was sold by Atlanta United to Newcastle for an MLS transfer record $27 million in January. While Almiron was explosive and rarely stopped running, Martinez is more cerebral and seems to pick and choose the moments when he will exert himself. There have been moments in games in which he has lost the ball, and hasn’t tried to win it back. One came in the first half against Colorado.

“He has characteristics more like an assist-provider, but he’s a player who can give us a lot, and I think today in general terms he had a great game,” Gonzalez Pirez said. “When teams defend deeply it’s complicated and, sometimes, we depend on the creativity of players like Ezequiel (Barco), Josef, sometimes Julian (Gressel) also, so we need them. Today, they appeared and we were patient, which was important, but I think he’s a very high-quality player.”

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