Atlanta United midfielder Pity Martinez works against C.S. Herediano in their Concacaf Champions League soccer match on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, in Kennesaw. Curtis Compton/
Photo: Compton
Photo: Compton

Pity Martinez starting to make an impact with Atlanta United

Pity Martinez received the ball about 20 yards from goal. He moved the ball to his left and appeared ready to shoot, even with defenders on top of him.

Then, he saw Josef Martinez making a run a few yards ahead. Instead of taking the low percentage shot, something he frequently attempted, always unsuccessfully, in previous games for Atlanta United, Pity Martinez passed the ball to his teammate. 

Though he still has no goals or assists, that play against Toronto on Wednesday is an example of how much more comfortable, and less pressure, Pity Martinez may be feeling as figures out his role with Atlanta United, which defeated Toronto 2-0 for its third consecutive win.

“I train and I play every day to try and get better,” he said on Tuesday, before the Toronto game. “You guys have to remain calm. Maybe what you guys are expecting of me isn’t the player that I think of myself. But it’s very early in the season. I’m working to be the player I want to be.”

Pity Martinez came to Atlanta United and MLS with huge expectations. He had just helped River Plate win the Copa Libertadores. He was named the South American Player of the Year. Media in Argentina bemoaned him leaving for MLS, where some said he would score five goals per game as if he were an adult playing in a youth league.

Martinez knew it wouldn’t be that easy.

“Those are their words, not mine,” he said. “I never said that. I knew it was going to be a difficult challenge. I’m doing my best to get up to the level I want to be at.”

Though Martinez said he hasn’t felt pressure, it seemed like he wanted to score a season’s worth of goals with every 30-yard shot he attempted in his first games with the Five Stripes.

As other new faces in MLS such as Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo racked up goals and assists with ease in the first few games, Martinez’s zeroes in both categories became more noticeable. And the more shots he missed or passes he misplayed, the more some Atlanta United supporters, those who follow MLS and some in Argentina, would question everything about his $15 million move.

Some said he didn’t have a position under manager Frank de Boer. One Argentine outlet reported that Martinez and River Plate were trying to figure out a way for him to return during the summer transfer window. 

Some said he was a bust.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a big-name international player came to MLS and couldn’t make an impact.

What was missing wasn’t Pity Martinez’s accuracy, or passing eye. It was patience.

“You cannot expect that suddenly he will play his best, it’s step-by-step and he’s getting the rhythm of MLS and the confidence to get back and he show already some highlights that this is the Pity that we want,” de Boer said before the Toronto game.

Martinez needed to improve his fitness after a short preseason, something de Boer has pointed out many times. He needed to understand his new teammates. He needed to understand MLS. He needed to know how the ball moves on the turf of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Martinez showed against Toronto that he’s learning.

After saying Tuesday that he’s about 90 percent physically, he played 90 minutes Wednesday for just the second time this season. De Boer said he kept him out because he wanted to get that feeling of completing a game.

As Pozuelo struggled, Martinez twice came close to scoring with excellent shots.

Perhaps more important, he just looked like he knew what he was supposed to do. In the previous game at Sporting KC and again Wednesday, Martinez connected well with his teammates as a distributor. He looked more like a player who has been on the team since 2017, rather than one who just joined in late January. He created two more chances Wednesday and ranks fourth in MLS in chances created per 90 minutes (3.16), showing a much better understanding of where to pass the ball when his teammates made runs, i.e., the pass to Josef Martinez. He created two chances as continues to be one of the better chance-creators in the league.

And he remained patient as Toronto tried to bunker to frustrate Atlanta United. Martinez said this ultra-defensive style of soccer that he’s seen some MLS team use against Atlanta United is different.

“He has been great for us the past couple games, and that is what we expect of him,” Michael Parkhurst said. “I think his confidence is growing game by game, and it is nice when we are able to score goals because it takes pressure off of him, and he does not feel like he has to do it all, which is probably when he is at his best.”

There are things that Martinez still doesn’t like. He was demonstrative with referee Chris Penso on Wednesday after he was taken down in the penalty box and then again a few minutes later, with no foul called either time.

Martinez also is not a big fan of the media. Though he always is honest and thoughtful with his answers in the few interviews he has done, he said if MLS wants to grow, it needs to respect the privacy of the players in the locker room after games. He referenced a low-key argument he had with a media member after the 2-1 loss to Dallas three games ago. The reporter wanted to talk to Martinez. Martinez didn’t want to talk. It was a short, terse conversation.

Martinez didn’t talk after Wednesday’s game. But a reporter walked up to him at his locker and congratulated him on having a good game. He said thank you and shook the reporter’s hand.

He’s learning.

“I’m always very critical of myself,” he said Tuesday. “Here, coming here, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Only 8-10 games in the league. The adaptation will take time.”

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