The world’s hottest striker, Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez, will face Wayne Rooney, who once was one of the world’s best strikers, at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. on Sunday.
Though they are similar in stature, skill level, and public interest in their hair, Martinez said he has never really thought about how he and Rooney compare.
“I’m Josef,” he said. “I don’t like to talk about the other players.”
No player has scored more goals in league play this calendar year than Martinez, who notched his MLS record-breaking 28th in last week’s 2-1 win at Orlando. While the significance of scoring more goals in a year is a bit misleading because most of the world’s leagues play across years, it is one more than the most ever scored by Rooney in the Premier League, as well as a testament to how and why Martinez and Atlanta United are top the MLS Supporters’ Shield standings with 54 points and eight games remaining.
Martinez is tearing through club teams in the U.S. and Canada the same way that Rooney ripped through club teams in England, Wales and across Europe.
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Only one player has scored more goals in the Premier League than the 208 Rooney netted at the beginning and ending of his career in England with Everton, along with 13 seasons in between at Manchester United during which he won the Premier League, Champions League, Europa League FA Cup and League Cup.
Though neither is tall – Martinez is 5-foot-6 and Rooney is 5-9 – both are good in the air. Martinez has nine headed goals this season.
Both are strong enough to hold off defenders. Martinez is faster than a Chick-fil-a drive thru, while Rooney no longer has the speed he once had, he’s still quick enough as shown by his ability to chase down an Orlando City player, tackle him, and then deliver a game-winning assist with a 50-yard pass a few weeks ago in a moment that may spark his team to the playoffs.
Both are intelligent, using their IQ to find pockets in defense that perhaps only they saw developing. That was evident in Martinez’s record-breaking goal against Orlando City when he made a slight adjustment to the left, which combined with a run to the right by Miguel Almiron, opened up a passing channel for Julian Gressel.
And, while Martinez is known for his different hair styles and colors (currently blond), Rooney is known for his prematurely disappearing – and then suddenly re-appearing – hair (currently still there, and the subject of a tifo by New York Red Bulls supporters last week).
Psychologically, they share one important trait, Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said.
“Ruthlessness in the box, fearlessness, the way they play the game, going hard all the time, throwing their body around and doing whatever it takes to score goals,” he said. “That’s what’s made both of them very successful.”
Martinez said he only watched one striker when he was younger. It wasn’t Rooney. It was Ronaldo of Brazil, not Portugal.
Martinez said he learned from watching him that there can be no sympathy in the penalty box, which is something the 32-year-old Rooney has rarely shown in scoring 284 goals across all competitions.
The Rooney that Atlanta United will face on Sunday is different than the player the Five Stripes easily ran around in a 3-1 win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on July 21.
It was just Rooney’s second game in MLS and he obviously hadn’t reached game fitness. That came quickly, though.
With Rooney gaining fitness while learning about his team and teammates, D.C. United bounced back to take 13 points from its next seven games. Rooney scored three goals and notched two assists in that span.
“He’s a world-class player,” Atlanta United’s Jeff Larentowicz said. “More than anything, it’s his teammates getting familiar with he’s able to do, how he can play.
“They know he’s world class. The way to allow those players to succeed on that level is give it to him when you’re supposed to, be in the right spots when he has it, and I think that’s kind of shown. He’s done some pretty special things in recent weeks.”
That quote also works for how Atlanta United is succeeding with Martinez, who has scored in nine consecutive games. He can break the MLS record for consecutive games scoring with another at Audi Field.
He’s Josef. He’s Wayne.
Both score goals.