Martinez back and ready to help Atlanta United

FEBRUARY 11, 2017 CHATTANOOGA TN Atlanta United players celebrate the third goal scored by forward Josef Martinez (right).

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FEBRUARY 11, 2017 CHATTANOOGA TN Atlanta United players celebrate the third goal scored by forward Josef Martinez (right).

Josef Martinez is ready to play.

The Atlanta United striker, out of action since late March after suffering a thigh injury while playing for the Venezuelan national team, saw his first minutes of action since the season’s third game in Saturday’s 2-0 loss at Chicago.

“I’m really happy because I have (spent) a lot of time away from the field,” he said. “The next game, hopefully we will win.”

Martinez played more than 20 minutes on Saturday and had one good shot. He has scored six goal this season.

He said his rhythm wasn’t up to that of his teammates or Chicago’s players but he believes as he practices and plays more, it will come back. He said he just wants to play.

“I think hopefully it will be soon that I will be able to get back to that level and help the team start winning games, like they’ve been winning, but were unable to do (Saturday),” he said.

Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said the plan was to bring on Martinez and Miguel Almiron, who played more than 70 minutes for Paraguay in a friendly against Peru on Thursday, in the second half, regardless of the score.

“Josef, those are his first official minutes back, so we wanted him to play about that many,” Martino said. “He looked good. He was moving well. I don’t think we saw any signs of his injury. He just needs more time.”

Atlanta United (5-6-3) has two games this week, both at home, and the team may be able to take advantage of the scheduling to speed up Martinez’s re-integration into the lineup. The team will host Charleston in a U.S. Open Cup match at Kennesaw State on Wednesday and will host Columbus at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday.

Martino said “there’s a chance” that they could change their plan and start Martinez on Wednesday and then take him off in the second half.

“It’s nice to have him out on the field around us and not doing his own rehab stuff,” midfielder Julian Gressel said. “It’s not like we don’t know how he plays anymore. I think it’ll be a quick transition and he can get on the scoresheet pretty quick, I think.”

Martino said having Martinez back and being able to shift Hector Villalba back to the right in the midfield and Gressel from the right to the middle, will give him options for the lineup.

Martino wouldn’t predict his alignment, but referenced that Gressel could play alongside Jeff Larentowicz as a holding midfielder, where he played in the season’s first few games, or he could keep the Larentowicz-Carlos Carmona partnership intact. They have started together as holding midfielders for the past several games.

The team has struggled to reproduce Martinez’s production at striker. Villalba was put into that position and scored three goals in seven games, but hasn’t been a factor in the past two, both losses. Kenwyne Jones scored two goals in four games, but his skill set — a large, physical target forward — doesn’t seem to be the best fit in Martino’s pressing system that relies on quickness from forwards and midfielders.

Atlanta United is in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, just three points out of the sixth and final playoff spot in the as the midseason point nears. It has also played one less game than the teams it is chasing. But after Saturday’s loss, its points-per-game average (1.29) has dropped to ninth in the East with just three wins in its past 11 games.

It needs to start earning points and a having a healthy Martinez back should help.

“I’m proud of the way the guys have been playing since I’ve been out,” he said. “We have to lift our head up and keep working.”

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