Striker Josef Martinez continues to train apart from his Atlanta United teammates because that is what manager Gabriel Heinze said Thursday that he has decided.
Heinze said the decision is his alone and has nothing to do with Martinez’s fitness.
Repeatedly asked why he made the decision, Heinze said he can’t use journalists to send a message to the team.
Martinez has been training apart from the team since his return from Brazil, where he was with the Venezuelan national team competing in the Copa America.
Atlanta United will host New England on Saturday.
Neither Atlanta United President Darren Eales nor Vice President Carlos Bocanegra would comment Thursday, with the club citing among its many policies that it doesn’t comment on coach’s decisions regarding players. Instead, the club issued a statement: “Josef is training apart from the team this week. The club does not comment on coaching decisions.”
Last week, Eales said Martinez was training apart while he improved his fitness. Though vaccinated, Martinez tested positive for COVID-19 while in Brazil. Martinez subsequently was quarantined for what Eales described as 2-3 weeks, during which time he couldn’t work out. Eales said he thought Martinez would return to the team for the New England game.
Midfielder Jake Mulraney said he has no idea what’s going on with Martinez’s situation and he doesn’t know what message is being sent. He said he hasn’t seen Martinez training.
There could be numerous reasons why Martinez isn’t training with the team if fitness isn’t an issue.
Among them could be that Martinez and Heinze had a disagreement about something. When frustrated during sessions under previous managers, Martinez sometimes would simply walk off the pitch. That may have happened under Heinze, who may not have been as understanding. The player may have asked for a transfer, which seems unlikely because of his past comments about not wanting to leave unless the team wanted him to leave, or the team is exploring transferring him, which also seems unlikely based upon the fact that the team is having trouble scoring, with only 13 goals in 12 games, and gave him a five-year contract extension just before the 2019 season.
Martinez is considered the face of the franchise. He joined the team on loan from Torino in 2017, and his contract was purchased by Atlanta United during the season. He was named MLS MVP in 2018, the same season the team won the MLS Cup. He holds several MLS scoring records. He has scored 79 goals in 91 league games, and five in nine playoff games.
He is beloved by the fan base for his love of kids, pets and interacting with the community in person or on social media. He hasn’t been included on the team’s interview schedule the past two weeks.
In addition to his stance with Martinez, Heinze declined to share injury information about players Matheus Rossetto, Jurgen Damm and Alan Franco. He said that because the team released injury information about Mo Adams on Monday, the person in charge of that information should be asked. It’s the first time this league season that Heinze declined to share injury information when asked.
If Martinez isn’t selected for Saturday’s game, Heinze could choose between Erick Torres, who has yet to score in eight appearances, Jackson Conway, who scored his first goal this season, last week, or Erik Lopez, who has one goal in 10 appearances.
Martinez is the second high-profile player to be forced to train apart from his MLS team this season. Toronto’s Jozy Altidore was forced to train by himself by Chris Armas, who eventually was fired after the team started the season 1-8-2. Altidore was reinstated to training with the first team.
Heinze’s decision to keep Martinez apart from his teammates is interesting because last week Eales spoke about the need for the team to stick together through its games in July. The squad is missing several starters who have been called up to national teams, or injuries.
Eales reasoned that if the team can earn a few points in its next games, when the starters return from the Gold Cup and Olympics, and those who are injured return, the team still will have 18 games remaining to play. That is plenty of time to earn enough points to qualify for the playoffs.
So, Heinze’s decision to keep a healthy player and arguably its best player out of training could either galvanize or the team, or cause it to tear apart.
The team is in 10th place in the East. The top seven will qualify for the playoffs. The team trails the seventh-place New York Red Bulls by four points. It trails first-place New England by 11 points, and leads last-place Toronto by five points.
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Atlanta United’s 2021 MLS schedule
April 17 Atlanta United 0, Orlando 0
April 24 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 1
May 1 New England 2, Atlanta United 1
May 9 Atlanta United 1, Inter Miami 1,
May 15 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0
May 23 Atlanta United 1, Seattle 1
May 29 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2
June 20 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 2
June 23 NYCFC 1, Atlanta United 0
June 27 Atlanta United 0, New York Red Bulls 0
July 3 Chicago 3, Atlanta United 0
July 8 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2
July 17 vs. New England, 5 p.m., ESPN
July 21 at Cincinnati, 8 p.m., FS1
July 24 vs. Columbus, 3:30 p.m., ABC
July 30 at Orlando, 8 p.m., ESPN
Aug. 4 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Aug. 7 at Columbus, 7:30 p.m. BSSO/BSSE
Aug. 15 vs. LAFC, 4 p.m. ESPN
Aug. 18 vs. Toronto, 7 p.m. BSSO/BSSE
Aug. 21 at D.C. United, 8 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Aug. 28 vs. Nashville, 3:30 p.m., Univision
Sept. 10 vs. Orlando, 7 p.m., FS1
Sept. 15 vs. Cincinnati, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Sept. 18 vs. D.C. United, 3:30 p.m., Univision
Sept. 25 at Philadelphia,3:30 p.m., Univision
Sept. 29 vs. Inter Miami, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Oct. 2 at Montreal, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Oct. 16 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Oct. 20 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Oct. 27 vs. Inter Miami, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Oct. 30 vs. Toronto, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
Nov. 3 at New York Red Bulls, TBD, BSSO/BSSE
Nov. 7 at Cincinnati, 3:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE
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