Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez is greeted by fans on the red carpet arriving to play the New York Red Bulls in their Eastern Conference finals MLS soccer game on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Josef Martinez says extending contract with Atlanta United is ‘dream’

Saying that Atlanta United is his Barcelona or Real Madrid, Josef Martinez on Wednesday signed a five-year contract extension that will keep the 2018 MLS MVP with the reigning champs through the 2023 season.

“I said last year that this is the dream I wanted for me and my family and now we are happy to make it possible,” he said.

Martinez, 25, said that Atlanta has become not only his home, but that of his family, which is why he has repeatedly said that he wants to play for the club until it no longer wants him.

A mix of speed, intelligence and technical ability, Martinez in just two seasons has become one of the most prolific strikers in MLS history with 50 goals. He broke the MLS single-season record with 31 goals during the 2018 regular season and added four more in the playoffs to set the whole season record.

The MLS career record is 145 goals. Martinez is on pace to obliterate that mark as one of the best finishers that Atlanta United President Darren Eales said he has ever seen.

“He has that skill and that quality that is gold dust in the world of soccer,” Eales said. “To have someone in the prime of his career, who has proven that he can do that consistently … is something that we are excited about.”

Those goals helped Martinez become the first player in league history to be named MVP of the All-Star Game, the league and the MLS Cup in the same season.

Martinez also showed an increasing maturity that Eales made sure to note on Wednesday. He referenced Martinez putting teammate Miguel Almiron through on goal last year to help him break a scoring drought. Eales mentioned how frequently Martinez would typically turn attention away from himself toward the team as the media tried to get him to talk about the records he was chasing.

“He understands it’s about winning trophies every year and he’s got a big part to play in that,” Eales said.

And, along the way, Martinez has captured the city’s attention. 

Whether it’s his changing hair style, his fearlessness on the field in suffering a broken nose while scoring last year, almost getting engulfed in celebratory flames after scoring two seasons ago, his temper when he doesn’t score or the team doesn’t win, his request for a statue of himself outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, or his wacky humor such as when he said “Later, alligator,” at the end of his MVP acceptance speech, he has become one of the most recognizable athletes in Atlanta.

“One of those things we need in the league is having those characters,” Eales said. “We want fans to have a guy they can watch. However he plays, he is someone they want to watch.”

The financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. Martinez’s salary in 2018 was $1.4 million, according to the MLS Players Association. The MLSPA typically releases salaries twice a year.

Eales said, like any negotiation, both sides experienced some pain.

Martinez didn’t seem concerned about the amount of money. He said he is from a humble neighborhood in Venezuela. A dollar isn’t going to change him. If he wanted money, he said he would go play in China.

Instead, Martinez was more focused on the respect and affection he has received from the club and city.

“Surely right now in Venezuela they are saying negative things about me because they have a mediocre mentality,” he said. “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.”

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