Speed, strength, accuracy and a fair amount of deception are all part of a good baseball pitcher’s arsenal. Atlanta United’s Josef Martínez displayed some of these traits as he threw a few after training, with teammate Leandro González Pirez acting as catcher.
This extracurricular activity was in preparation for the Major League Baseball clash between Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals, where Martínez was to throw the ceremonial first pitch as part of an initiative to bring the city’s sports teams together. Hailing from Venezuela, a South American country whose national game is béisbol rather than fútbol, he was the ideal man for the job.
The idea was to encourage a few baseball fans to take in some soccer, and vice-versa, and those who did make their way from SunTrust Park to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium to take in a Major League of a different kind have been treated to some of the best soccer their country has to offer.
Atlanta United are without doubt one of the most entertaining teams in Major League Soccer, and Martínez is one of their star players. While González Pírez can attest to the power of Martínez’s throw as it stung his catching hand in those after-hours sessions, the Argentine centre-back has also witnessed his teammate’s speed, strength, accuracy, and deception on the football pitch as the pair go about their day job for Atlanta United.
These are attributes which have seen Martínez break MLS goalscoring records this season and have helped Atlanta climb to the upper echelons of the Eastern Conference. He is currently scoring goals for fun, but coming from a country whose most popular pastime takes place on a ballpark rather than a football pitch, it’s a wonder he’s playing football at all.
Being the third generation of a footballing family helped. Martínez initially wanted to become a goalkeeper, like his father, but his desire soon changed from preventing goals to scoring them. “That didn’t last long,” he said of his goalkeeping career, and removing the gloves turned out to be a wise move. By the age of 18, the Caracas native was making his debut for the Venezuela national team as a forward, replacing Yonathan Del Valle in the latter stages of a friendly against El Salvador.
Venezuela may be about to experience a red wine tinged purple patch on the international stage, which could see football begin to gain ground on baseball back home. An exciting group of young footballers are hoping to take La Vinotinto to their first ever World Cup in 2022, with next year’s Copa América acting as a handy starting point for their progression.
At one end of the pitch they boast one of the best young goalkeepers in the world in the shape of Wuilker Faríñez, another Caracas native who, at just 20-years-old, already has nine senior caps. At the other end they now have Martínez, and this is in part thanks to Atlanta United’s Argentine boss, Gerardo Martino, who recognised the qualities of a player who had played much of his career as a wide forward or second striker, and converted him to an out-and-out centre-forward. “Josef came here without really playing much as a centre-forward before. He came here and adapted very well, and that can be seen,” said the former Barcelona boss.
Moving to Europe at the age of 18, joining Swiss side Young Boys and subsequently moving on loan to FC Thun, he had to adapt to a new climate, new languages and different styles of play. He did so responsibly, taking German lessons but also attempting to grasp the local twang. “It is complicated,” he told MARCA at the time. “In Thun they speak a dialect of German, and the cold … it is not the same as being at 40 degrees in Caracas. Here it is sometimes 15 or 20 degrees below zero. But hey, I’ve been lucky to adapt quickly.”
Martínez enjoyed his time in Thun, and they enjoyed him. Their sporting director Andres Gerber didn’t hide his disappointment when Young Boys recalled him midway through his loan spell. “We would have loved to end the season with Josef Martinez and are convinced that he would have benefited from another half year at FC Thun,” he said.
Though his goal return wasn’t as eye-catching back then, his time in Switzerland and subsequent move to Italy, where he played for Torino, will have prepared him for future challenges.
The considerable potential, backed up by impressive movement, pace and an eye for goal, was evident in Serie A too, and goals were scored from out wide as well as from central attacking midfield positions. A 2017 MLS expansion team spotted this potential, and were so convinced of his talent that they made him one of their highest earners.
Atlanta United have a distinct South American flavour, partly thanks to Martino, but also thanks to their willingness to try something different. In order to gain a short-term boost on and off the pitch, MLS franchises have often relied on big-name European stars approaching the latter years of their career. Atlanta went down a different route, focusing on the style of football, stadium experience, and building a unique culture at their club – one which also happens to be effective on the pitch.
Over the years, the arrival of a number of older players from Europe gave MLS a reputation as a retirement league – a place where the big names would go for one last payday regardless of whether they can still cut it on the pitch. But Atlanta flipped this on its head, giving young South Americans the chance to kick-start their careers.
Paraguayan Miguel Almirón arrived from Lanús, while Argentines Héctor Villalba and Yamil Asad joined from San Lorenzo and Vélez Sarsfield respectively. Genuine South American signings combined with Atlanta style. Almirón and Villalba took up two designated player spots, with the third going to Martínez.
Martínez had already been to Europe, slightly tarnishing his South American authenticity for the hipsters. If he’d been good enough he would have stayed in Europe, argued the critics, but Atlanta were changing the MLS landscape. It’s no longer a league for players who’d failed elsewhere; it’s a league for players to succeed. Or at least in Atlanta it is.
This is a club that gave players on the cusp of the highest level of the game a chance to get there. Players from South America who hadn’t quite convinced scouts from European clubs, plus a few who had but Atlanta signed them anyway. “I am happy because there are many South Americans in MLS, we are changing the idea that MLS is not a competitive league,” Martínez said in May. “It is a league that is growing, and it is nice to be part of it. I’m not thinking about going back to Europe, I just think about the next match. I like to win and if we’re not focused we’re going to lose matches.”
Martínez enjoyed an outstanding first season in Atlanta in 2017, scoring 19 goals in 18 starts as he revelled in his new role as an out-and-out striker. His campaign was interrupted by injury but, as was the case in Switzerland and Italy, there was no doubting his talent and potential.
He was the finisher in front of the classy creators and a solid spine that boasted the third-best defence in MLS during that inaugural season. His 19 goals saw him finish fourth in the goalscoring charts, having played half the amount of games of joint top-scorer Nemanja Nikolić, who netted 24 in 34.
It was a sign of things to come. This season he’s picked up where he left off last year, scoring 28 goals in 27 games at the time of writing. He’s 12 goals ahead of the next highest scorer in the league, Bradley Wright-Phillips, and is averaging an impressive 1.1 goals per 90. It’s an unprecedented return, and it has seen him overtake Roy Lassiter, Chris Wondolowski and Wright-Phillips to become the highest goalscorer ever in a single MLS season.
He is a pure scorer, averaging fewer than 18 passes per game, but this is what Atlanta need; Martínez has scored half of their 56 goals this season.
As a boy he supported Real Madrid, spending hours watching Ronaldo terrorise opposition defences. He has commented on his admiration for the Brazilian. “I loved watching him play. Not just for the joy he brought to the game and the skills he had, but the fact that he was a killer,” Martínez said. “If you gave him any room he would punish you. If he got a chance he finished it.”
The parts of Ronaldo’s game he once admired are now coming to life in his own, and his boyhood club Real Madrid may be taking note of the movement, intelligence, pace and instinct he displays up front for Atlanta.
He’s also spoken of his admiration for Newcastle striker and compatriot Salomón Rondón, who he’s likely to play alongside for Venezuela more often than not. “I will always say that Rondón is the best nine that exists,” he said. “I say this because I am Venezuelan. I share hotel and changing rooms with him and can verify that he is not only a great player, but a great person.”
Martínez’s dream is to play in a World Cup, and as football weaves its endless, often romantic story, you wouldn’t bet against him returning to Atlanta as a wily 33 year-old-striker with Venezuela in 2026, when the USA will host the tournament along with Canada and Mexico. Who knows how many goals he will have scored by then, and how many more records will have been broken along the way.
By James Nalton @JDNalton