28 games into the MLS season, to have your starting striker providing 17 goals is a solid tally. He would be tied for fourth on the goal scoring charts, with NYCFC’s David Villa, the reigning MLS MVP, leading the way with 19. It’s even better when it’s for an expansion team that’s the second-highest scoring team in the league (only behind Toronto FC, who just so happen to have this guy).
Josef Marítnez’ stats are already impressive given the 28 games that Atlanta United have played this year, but Martínez missed a large chunk of the season through injury. In reality, his 17 goals have come in 15 games, and only 12 of those were starts.
The Venezuelan striker has notched three hat tricks already this campaign, the first coming in a snowy 6-1 win at Minnesota United, and the other two coming last week in a 7-0 rout of the New England Revolution and a thrilling 3-3 draw with Orlando City SC. Those consecutive hat tricks were also bookended by games in which he scored, making Martínez the hottest striker in MLS right now with eight goals in his last four games.
For comparison, in the four games since the last international break, Lionel Messi has scored nine goals.
It was never this easy before for Martínez. Before moving to the Peach State, the striker had never found his scoring boots. With the exception of a loan to FC Thun in Switzerland, where he tallied eight goals in 18 matches, Martínez was never a goal scoring threat. He was a fringe player at his previous clubs and scored just a handful of goals: eight in two and a half years with Caracas FC, five in two and a half years (minus his loan to Thun) with BSC Young Boys, and seven more in two and a half years with Torino.
Atlanta brought him to the club on loan in February, and after starting the MLS season with five goals in three games, manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino, former Barcelona and Argentina manager, had seen enough to buy the player permanently.
While previously the goals weren’t quite there for the Venezuelan, the striker instincts were. Martínez possesses a burst of pace to beat defenders, and, as he’s shown this year in the States, he’s a clinical finisher. His leaping ability and positioning in the box when a cross comes in from the wing make him an aerial threat as well, capable of scoring in any way possible.
Martínez isn’t a player who’s going to slalom through five defenders before tucking into the bottom corner. He won’t be constantly lobbing the goalkeeper or cutting inside to curl a ball to the far post. He’s a classic number nine, and it’s all the little things–being in the right place, moving at the right time, and taking care with the finish–that make his goals seem so easy. His hat trick against Orlando, especially the third goal, captures everything that Martínez does so well.
Martino has created the most exciting squad in MLS, and Atlanta has wholeheartedly embraced their team. The team played at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the football stadium at Georgia Tech, until Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened. The team drew a crowd of roughly 42,500 for a Wednesday night game before essentially selling out the stadium for the match against Orlando on Saturday. The club has been doing this all season long, drawing an average crowd of nearly 48,000 fans, 4,500 thousand more than the Seattle Sounders, who have always had a brilliant fan base, and over 20,000 more than Toronto FC in third.
Martínez is the spearhead of the most popular team in the league and is vital to the team’s chances to make the looming MLS Playoffs. Three more wins (two with a result against Montreal on Sunday) clinches a playoff spot for the expansion side, and with four of their remaining six matches at home, it looks as if Atlanta is poised to make some noise in the playoffs.
With Martínez in the form he’s in, there’s no telling just how far Atlanta can go. Before that happens, though, Martínez has his sights set on top scorer Villa, a player who hasn’t scored in a month. When he finishes with the MLS Golden Boot after playing in half the amount of games as the rest of the league, Atlanta is going to have trouble holding onto him in the winter.
Photo: Alli Kaufman/The Georgetown Voice