August 1, 2018 Atlanta - MLS All-Stars forward Josef Martinez (17) battles Juventus defender Alex Sandro (12) for the ball in the first half of the Major League Soccer All-Star Game at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Wednesday, August 1, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Opponents discuss what makes Atlanta United’s Martinez so tough

Josef Martinez’s goal in Wednesday’s MLS All-Star game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium was meaningless, but a perfect example of why Atlanta United’s opponents have been unable to stop him this season.

First, Martinez found space behind a defender near the back post from which to head a cross from the left back across the penalty box. The header found Carlos Vela, whose volley was palmed into the air by Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczeny. Ignacio Piatti headed the loose ball back across the mouth of the goal. Martinez was the first to the loose ball, heading it into the goal while avoiding the post, leaping over one Juventus defender and then crashing into another.

Fearless. Smart. Athletic. Fast. Tenacious. That’s how two players on other MLS teams described Martinez before the game. That’s why he scored the goal on Wednesday.

It’s also why Martinez has 24 goals this season and needs just four more in the team’s final 11 games to break the MLS single-season scoring record. 

“I don’t think about the record because it adds pressure,” he said. “I just look forward to continue to feel good, play well and to score because it is my obligation.”

The Venezuelan is already the league’s career hat-trick leader with six in 42 games.

“It’s like if he doesn’t score, he can’t eat, I feel like that that what’s he tells himself,” Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen said. 

Steffen had to pick the ball out of his net after Martinez scored the first goal in what would be a 2-0 win at Columbus on June 13. The goal was one of the eight Martinez, who is 5-foot-6, has put in with his head this season. Martinez broke his nose scoring the header.

“I’ve never seen someone so aggressive in the box and want to score so badly,” Steffen said.

Martinez can score from anywhere with anything.

Six goals have come from his right foot. Five from his left foot and five from penalty kicks.

“As a defender it’s always tough to play against guys like that,” Dallas’ Matt Hedges said. He has the athleticism and the way he sees the space, it’s really difficult.”

Hedges found he and his teammates twice chasing Martinez when he scored two goals in a 3-2 loss at Toyota Stadium on July 4.

On the first, Martinez started his run from the back post and beat Reggie Cannon to the goal mouth to touch in a pass from Hector Villalba.

“His acceleration to get from a stand-still to full speed is almost instant,” Hedges said. 

On his second, Martinez found a pocket between three defenders. He ran into space to one-time a pass to Jesse Gonzalez’s near post with his left foot.

“He has the athleticism and the way he sees the space, it’s really difficult,” Hedges said.

So, how should Atlanta United’s opponents try to stop Martinez.

Hedges said the first step is to try to deny him service. But he said that Miguel Almiron is very good at finding Martinez. The second is to try to put a body on him. Martinez can’t go through someone, but he’s not above running into people. He crashed into a Juventus defender during the All-Star game, which was supposed to be a friendly exhibition.

“Our goal was to keep an eye on him and stay alert,” Steffen said. “He can be anywhere and he finishes a lot. As long as he doesn’t get service he can’t really score.”

 MLS Single Season Goals Record

Goals Player Team Year

1. 27 Roy Lassiter TB 1996

Chris Wondolowski SJ 2012

Bradley Wright-Phillips NYRB 2014

2. 26 Stern John CLB 1998

Mamadou Diallo TB 2000

3. 24 Josef Martinez, ATLUTD, 2018

Carlos Ruiz LA 2002

Bradley Wright-PhillipsNYRB 2016

Nemanja Nikolic CHI 2017

4. 23 Raul Diaz Arce DC 1996

Taylor Twellman NE 2002

David Villa NYCFC 2016

5. Camilo Sanvezzo VAN 2013

Dom Dwyer SKC 2014

Sebastian Giovinco TOR 2015

Kei Kamara CLB 2015

David Villa NYCFC 2017

6. 21 Eduardo Hurtado LA 1996

Mike Magee CHI 2013

Diego Valeri POR 2017

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