FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- “The King” took back his crown on Saturday. Atlanta United was subjected to the result.
Josef Martinez, who joined Miami in the offseason after his contract was bought out by Atlanta United, scored his first goal this season on a penalty kick in the second half and added another on a sliding shot into the lower left corner to hand his former team a 2-1 loss at DRV PNK Stadium.
The first goal came on Martinez’s first touch. The second goal was his 100th in regular-season matches. It came in 142 games. He reached the milestone faster than any player in MLS history, breaking Bradley Wright-Phillip’s mark of 159 matches. Of course, 98 came while with Atlanta United.
Martinez said taking the penalty while having not yet touched the ball made him as nervous as the day his son was born.
After scoring his first, Martinez went down on one knee in front of a large group of Atlanta United supporters who traveled to the match. It was a sight they saw dozens of times after Martinez scored for the Five Stripes, resulting in his nickname, “El Rey.” Typically, players don’t celebrate when scoring against their former team but Martinez had a complicated relationship with some aspects of the franchise. No one with Atlanta United said they minded that he celebrated, or either they didn’t see it.
The day had started with Martinez embracing several of his former teammates as the two teams walked onto the pitch and to their locker rooms after arriving at the stadium.
“It was the strangest moment of my life,” he said. “I was out there with my son, with friends I have known a long time, with people who were with me at the most difficult moments of my career, so it feels strange. It is a mix of joy and sadness.”
Atlanta United’s Andrew Gutman made the game interesting in the second minute of stoppage time with a headed goal from a corner kick by Brooks Lennon for his seventh assist this season.
It was Atlanta United’s (5-3-3) third consecutive loss across all competitions and the fourth game in which its offense couldn’t find any rhythm.
“I felt that we were creative in our attack, it’s just the final pass, the final delivery, the final movement is not there,” Atlanta United manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “So we need to continue working on that.”
With five against Miami, the team has 13 shots on goal in its past four matches. The team has taken just two points from its past five road matches.
“It’s a long season, there’s dips, there’s highs, there’s lows,” Gutman said. “You’ve just got to ride it out, you’ve got to stay mentally strong and stay together as a team. And we’ll get it right. And we’ll start winning games again.”
Pineda made a few changes to the starting 11 from the one that resulted in a 3-1 loss last week at Nashville. Machop Chol started the second consecutive game at striker in place of the injured Giorgos Giakoumakis with Derrick Etienne moving from left wing to right in place of the injured Luiz Araujo. Caleb Wiley was on the left and Almada was the attacking midfielder. Amar Sejdic replaced Matheus Rossetto in central midfield with Santiago Sosa in support. Brooks Lennon and Gutman were the fullbacks, Miles Robinson and JuanJo Purata the centerbacks, and Quentin Westberg replaced Clement Diop as goalkeeper.
Miami manager Phil Neville chose not to start Martinez, who was facing Atlanta United for the first time after he helped the club win three trophies in its first three years. It was the second consecutive match Martinez hadn’t started. Neville did choose to start two former Academy players, Benjamin Cremaschi and David Ruiz, in Miami’s midfield.
Atlanta United’s habit of starting slow in its past few games continued against Miami. Players didn’t make off-the-ball runs, which Pineda said last week that Almada needs to be most effective. Most passes were received by players with their back to Miami’s goal, which is a sign of slow play.
Atlanta United’s first shot was taken by Etienne in the 23rd minute. It was right at Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender and was the result of good work by Wiley to force a turnover.
Atlanta United’s players started to make runs and it stressed Miami’s defenders. Almada brilliantly got away from a defender to find Lennon running into space near the end line. His cross was put out for a corner. Chol failed to take advantage on the next sequence when, left unmarked, he put a point-blank header wide. Almada followed a few minutes later that was deflected and saved by Callender.
As was the case for Atlanta United last week, when Nashville began to take control around the 30th minute, Miami did the same on Saturday. After not taking a shot in the game’s first 30 minutes, Miami took seven in the final 15 minutes of the first half.
Miami 2, Atlanta United 1
Neville subbed on Martinez in the 58th minute. He received applause as he ran toward the end featuring many Atlanta United supporters.
Less than a minute later, Chol knocked down Ruiz in the penalty box, resulting in referee Armando Villareal signaling a penalty.
“They get that penalty; there was a handball in the first half that wasn’t called a penalty,” Pineda said. “I don’t know if it was or not, but those things change the games.”
In a game within the game, Westberg said he tried to get Martinez’s attention. The two have a history going back to the 2019 Eastern Conference final when Westberg, then with Toronto, dove to his right to save a penalty taken by Martinez.
“I was trying to make sure he remembered that moment,” Westberg said. “But he was in his own ... he did everything he could to not catch my sight.”
Westberg assumed that Martinez remembered the moment in 2019 and would go to his right. Martinez did. Westberg got a finger on it but it had too much power as it slammed into the lower corner to give Miami a 1-0 lead in the 59th minute.
Martinez’s second goal was typical of many he scored while wearing the red and black. He made a run from deep. DeAndre Yedlin hit a perfectly weighted pass that Martinez almost tackled into the goal, putting enough spin that it rolled past Westberg and into the opposite corner.
“I have a lot of respect for them,” Martinez said. “I have a lot of love for them. Even though what happened, that was in the past. I want to thank them for everything because nothing is forever. It’s soccer. One day you’re here, the next you don’t know. What a game.”
Pineda subbed in Miguel Berry and Araujo for Chol and Etienne in the 64th minute. Ronald Hernandez came on for Wiley in the 80th minute.
Atlanta United had a man advantage for the final six minutes because Miami’s Franco Negri received a red card.
Still, Atlanta United couldn’t rally.
Pineda spoke on Thursday about the need for the offense to take more risks in the final third in order to create more chances. Atlanta United had just two chances created in the first half against a depleted Miami midfield. It had seven through 83 minutes. It finished with 15.
“Yes, in the final third, we would have liked to get clear chances and be more lethal,” Westberg said. “But if you take tonight we’re frustrated. But we’re the team that’s playing really well. And we have a lot to look forward to, to my mind.”
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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule
Feb. 25 Atlanta United 2, San Jose Earthquakes 1
March 4 Atlanta United 1, Toronto FC 1
March 11 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte FC 0
March 18 Atlanta United 5, Portland 1
March 25 Columbus 6, Atlanta United 1
April 1 Atlanta United 1, New York Red Bulls 0
April 8 Atlanta United 1, New York City FC 1
April 15 Atlanta United 2, Toronto FC 2
April 23 Atlanta United 2, Chicago 1
April 29 Nashville SC 3, Atlanta United 1
May 6 Atlanta United 2, Inter Miami CF 1
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