Martinez’s long road back to Atlanta after ACL tear

One day back in 2019, Atlanta United FC play-by-play broadcaster Kevin Egan ran into forward Josef Martinez in the parking lot of the team’s training facility. Egan asked Martinez how he was doing, and the Venezuela international responded, “Good. All I want to do is score goals.”

Back then, Martinez was in a rich run of form, scoring 63 league and playoff goals in two seasons. But if putting the ball in the net is Martinez’s elixir of life, he’s surely parched by now. The last time he scored for the Five Stripes was more than a year ago, in the round of 16 of the 2020 CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) when he scored in the second leg against FC Motagua. In MLS, the wait has been even longer. You have to go back to Oct. 24, 2019 — when he scored the clincher against the Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference semifinals — to find his last league goal.

Granted, there’s a logical explanation for the long period since Martinez last felt the joy of scoring a goal. The torn ACL he sustained in the 2020 MLS regular-season opener against Nashville SC scuttled his campaign just minutes after it had begun. Complications, including an infection, delayed his recovery and all the while, he was forced to watch Atlanta (who take on Inter Miami CF on Sunday, 1 p.m. ET; stream live on ABC) struggle for goals without him — at least until he could no longer stand it. The Five Stripes ended up missing the playoffs for the first time since they began play in 2017.

In 2021, Martinez has made it back on the field at last, making seven appearances, three of them starts in the CCL. There have been flashes of his old self, like when he played Jurgen Damm in on goal in last week’s CCL quarterfinal first-leg defeat to the Union. And then there are periods when he looks a peripheral figure, like in Tuesday’s 1-1 draw against the Union in the second leg of the CCL quarterfinals. In a team missing Jurgen Damm and Ezequiel Barco, Martinez managed 27 touches, but just five in the attacking third, and he was substituted in the 78th minute with his team trailing by two goals on aggregate.

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Martinez is the first to admit that he’s not quite back to 100% fitness. Such was the length of his recovery that at times he feels like he’s learning to play the game all over again.

“I’m very happy to be back on the field because I was out for a long time,” Martinez told ESPN through a translator. “But it’s also still difficult going through the day-by-day, and trying to get my rhythm and everything back on the field.”

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Atlanta United star Josef Martinez opens up about the team’s struggles in 2020 after he tore an ACL.

Rehabilitating from injury is filled with stretches of lonely moments, the isolation of the gym replacing time on the training field, the buzz of game day and the camaraderie that comes with sharing ups and downs with teammates. In the midst of a pandemic, that loneliness was exacerbated, his time around people even more limited. For a time, it stripped Martinez of his identity, the goal scorer and former MLS MVP who could always be counted on to shoulder the attacking load.

“When you don’t play, you’re not a soccer player anymore,” he said. “When you’re a soccer player, you have everything [in] your hands. But when you’re not playing, you’re not scoring goals, you’re not playing games, you’re not on TV, you just become a normal person. I think sometimes people forget about that.”

The time away did allow Martinez to gain some perspective. He was able to spend more time with family and friends, and even took some trips to Georgia’s Lake Lanier. Martinez has long been a live-for-today type, but the here and now takes on even more importance, albeit with a twist.

“You only have one life,” he said. “Sometimes we think about the future instead of the present. A lot of people don’t realize how important health is and you realize that you have to enjoy today instead of always thinking about the future or tomorrow.”

Even as the coronavirus raged and Martinez’s rehab slogged on, there were some bonding moments. When Martinez got his MRI results following his initial injury, he and trainer Mario Cruz made a pact that neither would cut their hair until the striker made it back on the field. Martinez was ensconced in “man-bun” mode, and stayed there until he was finally able to take the field again in the league against Orlando City SC.

“It’s a good thing, because I couldn’t stand the ugly hair that I had anymore,” Martinez joked.

When it came time for him to make his first appearance at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in more than a year, Martinez decided to take the hair motif one step further, trading in his trademark blond dye job for a new look. It was teammate George Bello who suggested pink.

“A lot of players dye their hair white or yellow or blonde, but I wanted to do something different,” he said.

Inevitably, it comes back to goals. Martinez is the first to admit that Venezuela isn’t the first port of call when scouts are looking for South American forwards, even as La Vinotinto have started to make more of an impact internationally. That lack of pedigree, as well as a frustrating spell in Europe, notably with Torino, has led to an approach in which the pressure of delivering goals is even greater than it otherwise might be. Not even a record-breaking season can make that feeling go away.

“If I’m not scoring, then tomorrow the club can just buy another player,” he said. “As a forward, I always tried to give my best to try to score goals and do things in the right way. Unfortunately that’s what it’s like sometimes. People might forget the things that you’ve done if you haven’t scored a goal in a couple games, so I always try to do my best and to score goals.”

For Martinez, that has manifested itself on the field with a fearless, win-at-all-costs style. This is a man who didn’t think twice about putting himself in harm’s way to score a goal in the 2019 MLS All-Star Game, ostensibly an exhibition game against Serie A visitors Juventus. Such is Martinez’s perfectionism and will to win that he’s been known to walk of out of practice if he felt the session wasn’t going to his satisfaction.

“I’m not condoning it or anything, but I see what [Martinez’s] reasoning was,” said former teammate and Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst about Martinez’s training ground exits. “He wanted the best out of everyone on the team. He wanted them to play to a certain level. And when we weren’t performing to that level — as a team, as a coaching staff, as individuals, whatever it might be — he was going to let you know it, and sometimes he got so sped up with it, that he needed to remove himself from the situation.

“There’s a fine line between good passion and going over the lines sometimes, and Josef flirts with that line in a really good way. I think that I appreciated him even more since I’ve left and looking at it from the outside.”

Outwardly at least, new Atlanta manager Gabriel Heinze is willing to be patient. Given how much the Five Stripes have struggled for goals in the past year, as well as the fact that Heinze is implementing a new system, he understands that squeezing a few percentage points out of Martinez can have a massive impact on Atlanta’s season.

“When Josef is on the field, he feels good,” he told reporters after Saturday’s loss to New England. “Step by step we want him to get his fitness condition in the proper manner.”

Martinez notes that having changes in Atlanta isn’t all that new. Heinze is the third manager the team has had in five seasons, excluding interim appointments. It’s up to him and his teammates to adapt, and there are a lot of moving parts for Martinez to get back to his MVP form.

“When I scored [31] goals [in 2018] it’s because I had 50 chances a game to score,” he said. “So I don’t think it totally depends on me, but the most important thing for me is to get healthy, and then after that, we’ll see what happens.”

For Martinez, that vision includes scoring goals. It’s still all he wants to do.

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