Updated: Jul 19, 2022
What are the Atlanta United legend's options going forward?
In January of 2019, when Atlanta United had just come off the heels of winning MLS Cup in their second season as an expansion club, Josef Martínez signed a five-year contract extension stating that he was very happy in Atlanta.
"They [fans back in Venezuela] think I should be playing for Barcelona or Real Madrid. But for me, this is my Barcelona, my Real Madrid."
A turbulent three years and one torn ACL later, Martínez had a fallout with then-manager Gabriel Heinze where he was sent to train alone and practically isolated from the team. It didn't take long for Atlanta United's front office to realize they'd have to choose between a struggling, novice manager or a record-breaking city icon. Not a very hard choice when you put it that way, right?
A change of manager and Martínez's return helped the team go from 11th in the East with 15 points to fifth with 51 points.
Leading up to the 2022 season, things were looking great and Martínez reaffirmed his commitment to Atlanta saying "I want to die here. This is my home. I'll be here infinitely."
So we have our happy ending, right? Everything went to plan and absolutely NOTHING went wrong.
Atlanta kicked off the 2022 season pretty well, but an injury list miles long (pun intended) saw the Five Stripes slowly sink down the Eastern Conference standings. Something wasn't right. Atlanta had the talent and resources to be a top team, yet it languished near the bottom of the table. Why?
It all came out after Atlanta's embarrassing defeat against Austin FC where the team displayed a worrisome lack of energy and even received boos from the crowd. Martínez dropped several bombs when talking to the press in the locker room as he called out his teammates and the front office.
"We play because we have to play, but in training, some players don’t have that energy, some people don’t know what we have to do, or they don’t appreciate the jersey and what we’ve done for a long time."
But possibly more alarming to Atlanta fans was him hinting at potentially leaving the club saying that he only has one year left on his contract.
"I think this might even be my last season here."
"I still have one year [on contract]. I enjoy every day because I have to thank God for bringing me back to the field. Sometimes I can play good, sometimes I cannot. Sometimes I can score sometimes I cannot. I put my whole body in the fucking field. Soccer is life and we probably need more different players."
It seems like that Austin game was rock-bottom for the team as they were able to bounce back with a win against playoff-positioned Real Salt Lake and a narrow tie against Orlando. Both of these games were arguably the best performances this team has had all around this season and both games featured Martínez... as a sub.
While it's never easy for a player to return from a long-term injury and get back to their previous level, it's clear two years after he tore his ACL that he still has a long way to go. statistically, Martínez is 35th in the league in shots per game with 2.15 and has a very low amount of touches per game (20.5) when compared to some of the top forwards in the league such as Taty Castellanos (44.3), Taxi Fountas (34.2), Hany Mukhtar (51.3), and Gustavo Bou (38.5).
Furthermore, his heatmaps from this season show that he doesn't get around as he used to, only showing significant activity down the middle when he used to be more active around the edges of the central zones. In terms of the eye test, Martínez doesn't have the pace anymore and doesn't seem to be able to get past defenders with as much ease as before.
Enter Ronaldo Cisneros who has shown on several occasions that he has the ability to create space for himself as well as the pace to chase balls played in behind. Inside the box, his movement is almost like 2018 Martínez's as he is able to shake off defenders and take his shot. Cisneros is only on loan from Chivas, but his performance makes a compelling case for bringing him in on a permanent transfer when the loan expires.
So this begs the question: what comes next for Josef Martínez? Here are a few things that could happen:
Return of the King
This is the one all Atlanta United fans are hoping to see. It involves Josef getting his rhythm back and reinstating himself as one of the most lethal finishers in the league. This can definitely happen as it has across the league in players like Carles Gil who missed the 2020 season and was crowned MVP last season after helping New England Revolution win the Supporter's Shield and set a single-season points record.
What would it take? Consistency and playing time. The team has been plagued by injuries, so Martínez hasn't had a whole lot of minutes with Atlanta's full attacking talent. In fact, he has only started once alongside Almada, Araújo, and Moreno this season. Furthermore, many of the players Atlanta has been fielding lately started playing with the team this season. Basically, the team hasn't had time to gel and whenever it seems like they will, someone gets injured and someone has to be brought in for them. If Martínez is going to get back to speed, he'll have to build some chemistry with his teammates and get more playing time going forward.
This is the option no one even wants to imagine, but it's one that's on the table. Martínez bringing up his contract situation could have been to wake up his teammates and rouse the fans a bit, but if he is seriously thinking about leaving the Five Stripes, they can't let him go on a free. Martínez's current value according to Transfermarkt is roughly $13.75 million - a lot of money that Atlanta can't afford to let slip away. There is almost certainly a market for him in MLS with teams such as Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City looking for a true number 9. On the bright side, it would mean Atlanta gets plenty of resources to find another exciting quality player. On the not at all bright side, Atlanta loses an icon and the last remnant of that 2018 MLS Cup Champion team.
EDIT: I originally had the option of buying Martínez down in this article, but as pointed out by Doug Roberson of the AJC, there is a rule in that mess of MLS roster rules that says that a designated player that earns more than $1.5 million a year cannot be bought down. According to the MLSPA, Martínez has a salary of $3.75 million and therefore cannot be bought down. These roster rules are complicated y'all.
With Darren Eales' exit, there is a chance for this team to go in a new direction depending on who takes over. Whoever steps into the role of club president is going to have to take a serious look at the Martínez dilemma and make a decision. At this point, it's still too early to tell what might happen. The team seems to be turning in a good direction, so maybe that encourages Martínez and helps to awaken that goal-scoring spirit again.