Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez joins short list of area’s elite players

Atlanta United's Josef Martinez strikes a celebratory pose after scoring against Philadelphia last season. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Spread wide across a wall in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood of Atlanta is a new mural celebrating one of this city’s most dynamic athletes, every bit the offensive sensation in his game that Julio Jones and Ronald Acuna are in theirs.

He comes from Valencia, Venezuela, and plays a sport that, before he arrived, never would have inspired such a bold splash of appreciation, no matter how new the New South had become.

In this Portrait of a Goal Scorer, Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez looks proudly down upon Walker Street, jaw set in a bit of a defiant underbite. His arms are spread wide, in a pose like Christ the Redeemer on that mountaintop above Rio de Janeiro. He is a man welcoming all to join him in the pursuit of his next score.

When Martinez first saw the mural at the first of February, it buckled him. “When I was there, I cried,” he said earlier this month. “Because it’s not my country, you know. That’s a gift.”

“When you receive that gift, we’re human, we feel something. In my country I don’t receive that.” In fact, Martinez says he has not been back to strife-ridden Venezuela in at least two years. In the meantime, he has immersed himself enough in the culture that has adopted him that he did the bulk of the interview for this story in English. And he’ll tell you that in addition to his native Spanish he also speaks bit and pieces of Italian and Portuguese (he has played abroad in Switzerland and Italy). A little German, too.

“And I want to learn French,” he said.

His world is a big, wide one. A soccer player who ruffles the back of the net like Martinez tends to draw attention from teams all around the globe in leagues more prestigious than MLS. His buddy Miguel Almiron left for England a season ago after commanding a transfer fee of more than $20 million. But Martinez has shown no interest yet in greener fields elsewhere, nor has Atlanta United looked to move him.

Sure, the pay’s not bad – Martinez, signed through 2023 made just over $3 million last season. But beyond that, there’s the mural and the sense of acceptance that it represents. He has felt appreciated in Atlanta like nowhere else. “That’s why I’m still here. I don’t know how long, but that’s why I’m still here,” he said.

Bigger than life is Josef Martinez now, at least judging by the mural in downtown Atlanta. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Credit: JACOB GONZALEZ

Credit: JACOB GONZALEZ

Martinez, 26, launches his fourth MLS season here at month’s end, the same time Atlanta United launches its fourth season. He is the engine that drives United’s scoring and has been from the beginning. As such, he also is the personality of this franchise.

With 77 goals in 83 regular-season games, Martinez puts the strike in the position of striker. He led the MLS in goals in 2018 and had a 15-match goal-scoring streak in ’19. In the past two seasons he has scored 45 percent of Atlanta United’s goals. The pressures on him are considerable, as the question that has arisen the past couple seasons follows him still into this one: If Martinez doesn’t score, who will?

“I feel I have a lot of pressure on my shoulders – I don’t know how much but it’s a lot,” he said. “Because sometimes when I’m in a restaurant, for example, the people (who see him) are not going to say Atlanta United lose, they might say Martinez miss a goal. Sometimes that is very hard. But I love it.”

His blocked penalty shot in the loss to Toronto in the Eastern Conference final last year was a key turning point and a bit of a jarring surprise, because Josef Martinez is not supposed to miss a lay-up.

The occasional misfire aside, Martinez has brought to Atlanta something it very badly needed if it was latch onto this soccer thing – a brightly-coiffed, fiery someone to put points on the board. This is not a place to rally consistently around the 0-0 draw.

“We know how important he is,” his second-year coach, Frank de Boer, said. “The people love him. His mentality is to try to win every game and to give his best.”

This much de Boer has learned in his time here: “If they are talking about Atlanta United, and talking about players, I think 95 or 98% they will start to talk about Josef. We know that he has a great impact in Atlanta and he’s very popular. He has a great impact in Atlanta.”

It is the rare player in any sport who can master the role of scorer. In soccer, certainly, the ability to finish off a goal is a rare and beautiful thing. Everyone who grows up kicking a ball in the street wants to be the one celebrating a goal, but only the scarcest few actually realize the dream.

You need not know a soccer ball from a cantaloupe to appreciate what Martinez fashioned in September against FC Cincinnati. Taking a pass in front of the Cincinnati goal, he gained control of the ball with a deft little back-heel move. Then he cut abruptly to his left, juked a poor defender who ended sprawled on the turf, quickly lined up his shot and deposited a curling, left-footed blast into an upper corner of the goal from about 10 yards out. That was your MLS Goal of the Year for 2019.

You watch something like that and you get a better idea of what Pele meant when he spoke of how he made his art: “The head talks to the heart and the heart talks to the feet.”

Some goal-scorers can get rather grandiose when they speak of their abilities. It was the late Alfredo DiStephano (best known for his 216 goals with Real Madrid from 1953-64) who said, “Scoring goals is like making love: Everyone can do it, but no one does it like me.”

Martinez doesn’t quite get so flamboyant when discussing what separates a goal-scorer such as himself from the rest.

“The biggest difference is in the head, mentality,” he said. “But when I’m older and retired I want people to remember me as a winner, not just someone who scores goals. I’ve put my body on the line. I’ve broken my nose, wrist, foot, to score goals. It comes down to mentality. Not everyone has that.”

When asked why it was with Atlanta United that he blossomed as a goal-scorer – Martinez scored but seven goals in 34 starts with Torino (Italy) – he rightfully mentioned those who set the table for him.

“(Almiron) dribbles through 10 people and I stay in front of the net and put it away. That’s why had 31 goals (in 2018) – my teammates ... I need other players around, every striker needs that,” he said.

“I don’t play by myself. The last three years I depend on the people around me. If I receive a pass, I try to score. This is a sport for 11 players, not just one. If you want to win, you want a team. If you want goals, you need the assists.”

De Boer expounded more on the uniqueness of Martinez, the attitude that sets the goal-scorer apart:

“It’s eagerness to score goals. Not many players are that eager to score goals. If it’s just a normal training, or in the game, his life is about scoring goals. (He believes) I have to score goals.

The coach says there is something in the DNA of these kind of players that drives them to score. “If he can score five times, he wants to score five times. And he will be really pissed off when it’s not five,” de Boer said. “You don’t want to get rid of that from him. Hopefully he will always have that.”

There is a practical side to what drives Martinez, too, one that speaks to a nature that will never allow him, no matter how many languages he learns, to understand the word “complacent.”

“If I don’t score another guy may score. Then he plays. So, Martinez goes to the bench,” he said.

“So, I have to score. That’s why I’m a striker, no? If you no score, you no play. That’s the way I look at it.”

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