Josef Martinez reportedly not in Atlanta United’s plans

Josef Martinez is not expected to return to Atlanta United for the 2023 season, according to a report by The Athletic.

An Atlanta United spokesperson said the team declined to comment. Attempts to reach Martinez, Vice President Carlos Bocanegra and manager Gonzalo Pineda were unsuccessful. Martinez has still been training at the team’s practice facility when scheduled, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

Martinez will finish his career at the club with 111 goals, including 98 in league games, across all competitions.

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Martinez had a guaranteed salary of $4,141,667 as of Sept. 22. He is under contract through the 2023 season. The club can attempt to trade him, but Martinez would have to agree to a trade, transfer him or buy out his contract. MLS clubs are allowed one offseason buyout. Moving Martinez will open a Designated Player slot. The trade window opens Nov. 7-9.

Martinez was brought on loan from Torino in Italy’s Serie A for the 2017 season as the team’s third Designated Player, joining Hector Villalba and Miguel Almiron. That loan was turned into a transfer after three games. He signed a five-year contract extension before the 2019 season after being named MLS MVP in 2018 and helping the club win the league championship.

With ever-changing colors of hair, Martinez became a fan favorite because of his scoring prowess in 2017, ‘18 and ‘19 when he totaled 82 goals. He loved the team’s supporters, once describing the club and the city as his version of playing for Barcelona. He was honest in interviews, sometimes brutally so, occasionally throwing in profanities that he would demand the translator include when he wasn’t speaking English and unusual phrases that helped emphasize whatever point he was making. He was active on social media and took delight in making fun of Orlando City. In return, Atlanta United’s supporters still post on social media about the club building a statue at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in his honor. A mural of him was painted on a wall in the Castleberry Hill section of the city in 2020.

Things began to change in 2020. Martinez suffered a torn ACL in the first game that required a surgery in March and another in December to clean out scar tissue. Martinez later said he briefly considered retiring. He returned in 2021 and didn’t look to have the same quickness and confidence but still scored 12 goals in 25 appearances. He and manager Gabriel Heinze didn’t get along, which may have played a part in the club terminating him after just 13 games.

Playing for Pineda, who was hired to succeed Heinze, Martinez underwent a procedure in April to clean out the knee. He finished with nine goals in 26 appearances. His bicycle kick goal against New England was voted the MLS Goal of the Year. It was the second time that he received that honor. The other came in 2019.

Among his other career highlights:

  • He scored in a league-record 15 consecutive matches in 2018;
  • He holds the league record for most goals scored in a three-season span (77 from 2017-19);
  • He became the seventh player in league history to score at least 15 goals in three consecutive seasons;
  • He holds the league’s career hat-trick record (six) and single-season record set in 2017 and tied in 2018.

Martinez’s last season with the club will likely be remembered for his final few minutes on the field, during which he applauded the supporters while making a lap, and in the locker room following the season-ending loss to NYCFC. Asked if he would talk, Martinez said, “Bocanegra is over there, and Pineda is over there,” at least twice when approached. Wearing all black, he then walked out of the locker room, posed for some photos with some of the team’s younger supporters in the concourse and left Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The season-ending loss was the eighth time in the final nine games that Martinez was used as a sub. He wasn’t eligible to play in one of the games because he was serving a weeklong suspension handed down by Bocanegra and Pineda for what they described as conduct detrimental to the team. Pineda later said there were several instances of misconduct that culminated in the suspension.

One of those instances was Martinez reportedly kicking over a table that contained the team’s postgame meal following the loss at Portland on Sept. 4.

Another came following a morale-sapping 3-0 loss to Austin on July 9 at home when Martinez said afterward that he didn’t think some players respected what it meant to play for the club, and he didn’t think the roster was being constructed with winning now in mind.

In end-of-season interviews, Bocanegra and Pineda said they felt they had a fine relationship with Martinez, though Pineda said they don’t talk as often as they did. Bocanegra said then that no decisions had been made regarding Martinez’s future. Pineda repeatedly said during the season that Martinez was no longer the first choice striker because the others, Ronaldo Cisneros and Dom Dwyer, were better at making runs behind defenders and at pressuring defenders with the ball.

Attempting to trade Martinez may be tricky because of his knee injury and salary. MLS teams are allowed three DPs. There were several teams that ended the season with available DP slots open. If Atlanta United buys out Martinez, he would be free to sign with any club. Most big trades in MLS have resulted in a player being exchanged for between $1-1.5 million in Allocation Money.

Bocanegra deciding that Martinez isn’t in the club’s future is the heaviest he has made, but one in a long line of moves that, in hindsight, weren’t well received by the club’s supporters. Among those are trading Julian Gressel and Darlington Nagbe, transferring Villalba, and signing Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez. It’s especially important because the club is in the process of interviewing candidates to become its next president. Bocanegra said in the end-of-season interviews that he isn’t sure of his future with the club but looks forward to meeting the next president.

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