Josef Martinez may have been the least obvious answer to Atlanta United’s conundrum of who would replace Ezequiel Barco as the team’s playmaker and offensive spark.
But reigning league MVP and holder of several league and team scoring records filled that role in Wednesday’s 2-0 win against Toronto. The striker had his his first multi-assist game in MLS on goals by Hector Villalba and Julian Gressel. Martinez would have had two more assists if not for correct but close offside calls in the second half.
“I know he’s eager always to be enforcing goals and scoring goals, but I’m very pleased with his performance,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “The other teams have to look to other players and that Josef can give assists. So, I’m really pleased with his performance.”
Barco, tied with Martinez for the team lead with four goals, left Atlanta United on Monday to join the Argentina U20 national team for the World Cup in Poland. He isn’t expected to return until after Atlanta United finishes its current stretch of eight games in 28 days.
Barco has arguably been Atlanta United’s best player this season. In addition to his goals, the midfielder has one assist and has shown an aggressiveness and instinct that has turned him from last year’s Pity Martinez into this year’s Miguel Almiron for some of Atlanta United’s supporters.
De Boer brought on Villalba into Barco’s wide midfielder slot against Toronto. Villalba didn’t disappoint. In addition to his first goal, his first this season, he hit the post and was denied a breakaway by a poor first touch.
But it was Martinez who took on the facilitator role that Barco owned.
On the first goal, Martinez was the first to reach to a loose ball following a save by Toronto’s Alex Bono. Martinez’s cross found Villalba in the goal mouth for the opening score in the 17th minute.
On the second goal, Martinez played a simple pass to his right to Gressel to hit with his left foot to secure the win in the 67th minute.
Martinez tied for the team lead with three chances created from just 34 touches. Several times during the game he dropped back into the midfield to receive the ball and relieve pressure.
Being a player who owns that he is paid to score goals, Martinez finished with five shots, one on goal.
“I think he has had a great attitude, and he wants to win first and foremost,” Michael Parkhurst said. “He wants to score goals, obviously, that is what he does and what he does really good, but he wants to win, and if that means providing assists, then, that is what he will do. He could have had two more if they had not been offside, which shows his unselfishness. A goal king like himself does not usually assist two shots, and I know they got called back, but if they had not that would be two more assists. He is a team first player, and he has been working hard for us.”
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