He came as a relative unknown to Atlanta United’s developing fan base. He will leave the MLS franchise as “El Rey,” the king.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of Atlanta United

Atlanta United confirmed Wednesday that it bought down Josef Martinez’s contract to a level that will allow him to sign with Miami. The complicated move ends Martinez’s time as a Five Stripe with the following ledger:

– Three major trophies starting with the MLS Cup in 2018, and the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup in 2019.

– Numerous franchise scoring records, starting with 111 goals, including 98 in MLS games, as well as several league records.

– Many memories, starting with his scoring burst in snowy Minnesota in the team’s second game, goals of the year scored against Cincinnati in 2019 and New England in 2022. Almost fittingly, the spinning volley was his final goal for Atlanta United.

Because this is MLS, the move is complicated. Martinez has one year remaining on his contract. The team holds an option on the 2024 season. Martinez has a no-trade clause in his contract, agreed to when he received an extension ahead of the 2019 season that increased his annual salary by approximately $3 million.

For Martinez to waive the no-trade clause, Atlanta United agreed to buy down his contract from its current $4,141,667 (as of September 2022) to a level less than a Designated Player, which in 2022 was a salary of no more than $1,612,500. Miami will take on that portion of his contract. It’s possible that Miami could spend some of its Targeted Allocation Money to buy down Martinez’s contract even further. The transaction opens a DP spot for Atlanta United. This will be the one offseason contract buyout that MLS allows clubs to use.

ExplorePhotos: Josef Martinez's memorable career with Atlanta United

Atlanta United Vice President Carlos Bocanegra said there wasn’t a single moment that led to the decision, which was made as a group that included manager Gonzalo Pineda. New President Garth Lagerwey was made aware of what likely was going to happen before he took the job and kept informed throughout the process, according to Bocanegra.

Still, the team bought out the face of the franchise. Bocanegra said it wasn’t easy and that they didn’t want him to go to an Eastern Conference rival. However, they wanted what was best for both parties and that Martinez has family in Miami.

“We know how much he loves and what he means to the city of Atlanta,” Bocanegra said.

Martinez will be introduced Jan. 21 at a halftime ceremony during Inter Miami’s friendly against Vasco da Gama of Brazil.

“I’m excited for the opportunity to represent Inter Miami and give the best of myself,” Martinez said in a statement from his new club. “This is a club with high aspirations and that aims to be amongst the best in the league. I hope to help the team achieve its objectives and leave my mark at the club.”

The end of the relationship between Atlanta United and its standout striker became more and more clear as the team unsuccessfully attempted to make the playoffs last season.

First, Martinez and Pineda got into a shouting match following a loss at Portland. That altercation resulted in the team suspending Martinez for a week. Pineda said it was the first of many examples of incidents involving Martinez. Pineda declined to name more.

Following the season finale, Martinez declined to answer questions. Instead he said at least twice that Bocanegra is over there and Pineda is over there. That was the last time that he spoke with the media.

ExploreWhat’s next for Atlanta United at striker?

Martinez had a complicated relationship with most of Atlanta United’s managers. He was forced to train by himself by manager Gabriel Heinze, who soon after was fired because of the team’s poor results. In July, Martinez calmly called out some teammates and members of the front office after the team was beaten 3-0 by 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%, 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.”

Martinez always was emotional, especially after losses.

It was clear last season that Martinez no longer was the same player he once was before he suffered a torn ACL in the first game of the 2020 season. Martinez was a player who could score with his right foot, left foot or head. Martinez had no fear running at defenders.

Martinez also became a player who didn’t work as he once did on defense, one who often was forced to come into the midfield to look for the ball.

Bocanegra stressed that no single incident led to the decision.

“It was just big-picture analysis on the team and how do we move forward to putting our best foot forward,” Bocanegra said.

The exit was very different than the arrival.

Martinez arrived on loan to Atlanta United from Torino in Serie A in February 2017. He was used as a winger by the Italian club. Manager Gerardo Martino moved Martinez from the wing to play as a single striker. With Miguel Almiron playing underneath, Hector Villalba on the right and Julian Gressel threading passes, Atlanta United’s offense tore through most of its opponents. Martinez scored 19 goals in 20 games. The club turned his loan into a permanent transfer March 21, 2017, after only a few games.

Martinez followed that with one of the better seasons in MLS history: a then-league record 31 goals in 34 games. The record-breaking 28th goal came fittingly at Orlando, a club Martinez loved to torment on the field and on social media. The photo of Martinez waltzing through Orlando’s defense to score is one of the more famous in club history. The goal came in the 74th minute on a 12-yard chip.

“I’m really happy, really happy with the place where I got the record, happy with the way the game was played,” Martinez said after the game. “I’m happier than ever and happy to get the three points.”

Martinez led the club to the MLS Cup, scoring the team’s first goal in the 39th minute.

He was rewarded after the season with the contract he currently is playing under. During the announcement of that contract, Martinez referred to Atlanta as his Barcelona.

“Surely right now in Venezuela they are saying negative things about me because they have a mediocre mentality,” he said at the time. “They think I should be playing with Real Madrid.

“For me, this is my Barcelona or my Real Madrid. It’s not about me being the star. This team has 11 stars on the field, plus the substitutes, plus everyone who works at the club. That’s the important thing.”

In 2019, Martinez scored in 15 consecutive games, then an MLS record, and finished with 27 goals to set the record for most goals scored (77) in a three-season span.

“Since his arrival in 2017, Josef Martinez has poured his heart and soul into Atlanta United,” team owner Arthur Blank said in part of a statement provided by the club. “We experienced a lot of firsts together – Atlanta United’s inaugural year, Josef’s first MLS season, a number of record-setting performances and, of course, an MLS championship together. Josef is a one-of-a kind, iconic athlete, and I’m grateful to him and his family for taking a chance on Atlanta and growing with us.”

After Martinez sustained his knee injury on a cold night in Nashville, Bocanegra said he came to his house and they smoked cigars in the backyard. Bocanegra said they discussed the end of careers and that it was likely Martinez’s wouldn’t end in Atlanta. Professional sports rarely allows for careers to end where they started.

Forward to almost three years later, and Bocanegra said they wanted to respect Martinez by helping him get to a place where he would be happy. Martinez wanted to stay in the U.S. Bocanegra said there was a lot of interest.

“He knows the doors are always open here for him,” Bocanegra said. “This was ... a sporting decision and it’s business, and sometimes those are hard, but he’s really intelligent. He’s been great through the whole process with this, and like I said, it’s not been contentious. It’s been, let’s try to figure out a solution. He means a lot to the city. It means a lot to the club, and he helped us get to where we are today.”

For more content about Atlanta United

Follow me on Twitter @DougRobersonAJC

On Facebook at Atlanta United News Now

On Instagram at DouglasDavidRoberson

Atlanta United coverage on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Southern Fried Soccer podcast can be found

Apple - https://apple.co/3ISD6Ve

Spotify - https://spoti.fi/3L8TN0C

Google podcasts - https://bit.ly/32KlZW3

If you are listening to us for the first time, please follow us on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcast ... and if you like what you hear, please give us a good rating so we can grow the show. If you have questions about the MLS team, you can email Doug Roberson at droberson@ajc.com, DM him on Twitter @dougrobersonajc or call 770-810-5297.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a special offer for Atlanta United supporters and listeners to this podcast. If you subscribe today, you will not only get unlimited digital access to the AJC and the Sunday paper for $2.30 a week but we are also throwing in a special limited-edition Atlanta United and Atlanta Journal-Constitution scarf. So sign up now at subscribe.ajc.com/utdscarf.

Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule

Feb. 25 vs. San Jose Earthquakes, 7:30 p.m.

March 4 vs. Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m.

March 11 at Charlotte FC, noon, Fox

March 18 vs. Portland Timbers, 7:30 p.m.

March 25 at Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.

April 1 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

April 8 at New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.

April 15 at Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m.

April 23 vs. Chicago Fire FC, 4:30 p.m., FS1

April 29 at Nashville SC, 1:30 p.m., Fox

May 6 at Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.

May 13 vs. Charlotte FC, 7:30 p.m.

May 17 vs. Colorado Rapids, 7:30 p.m.

May 20 at Chicago Fire FC, 8:30 p.m.

May 27 at Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m.

May 31 vs. New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m., FS1

June 3 at Los Angeles FC, 10:30 p.m.

June 10 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 21 vs. New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.

June 24 at New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

July 2 vs. Philadelphia Union, 4 p.m., Fox

July 8 at CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 12 at New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m.

July 15 vs. Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m., FS1

Aug. 20 at Seattle Sounders, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 26 vs. Nashville SC, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 30 vs. FC Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 2 at FC Dallas, 8:30 p.m.

Sept. 16 vs. Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 20 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 23 vs. CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 4 at Philadelphia Union, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 7 vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 21 at FC Cincinnati, TBA