ATLANTA — Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez’s feet sizzled in the penalty box that he almost scorched himself after scoring a goal … Literally.
Martinez scored the lone goal against the Colorado Rapids in United’s 1-0 victory Saturday night. He then ran towards the crowd, jumped on an advertising board and felt the flames approach his body. Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard was left vanquished on the ground, engulfed by the celebratory bursts of flame roaring behind him.
But to the Atlanta United faithful, it represented more than just a goal celebration.
Similar to a Phoenix reborn from ashes, a new form of Martinez seemed imminent. No longer did there appear any signs of injury or prevention of play. Instead, Martinez descended from the mountain of flames, claiming his seventh goal of the season with ease.
“Atlanta has made me a special player,” Martinez said. “Ever since I got here they’ve treated me wonderfully, probably the best I’ve ever been treated. The fans are supporting and cheering of us. So that’s why when I score I always dedicate my goals to them and to the team because Atlanta has made me an important player.”
The Valencia, Venezuela, native embarked on the inaugural season with Atlanta from Italian side Torino. He collected 13 goals in 75 appearances for all competition in Serie A and cup contention.
He established his home on February 2nd and loaned to Atlanta United with a buying option. The 24-year-old debuted for the Five Stripes on March 5 in a home defeat against the New York Red Bulls. The very next match week, Martinez notched the first ever hat trick not only for his professional career, but for the club itself. A result of a 6-1 domination over fellow franchise starter Minnesota United.
After a dominant performance Martinez earned MLS Player of the Month for March. The Atlanta United front office realized the Venezuelan was their man and a permanent move grew inevitable. March 21 marked the day Martinez’s buyout clause was activated and he became fully hailed by the Five Stripes.
“Josef is a fantastic talent,” defender Tyrone Mears said. “He should be leading the goal-scoring charts, certainly in non-conference, with the quality he has. He’s an important player for us.”
Injury succumbed Martinez after international duty in a World Cup qualifier when Venezuela faced Peru, which ensued in a 2-2 draw. United was without their top-shooter for 11 straight games. Martinez didn’t return until the club’s first round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament against the Charleston Battery.
The absence of Martinez saw a record of 3-3-5. However, during his nonexistence players like forwards Yamil Asad and Hector Villalba and midfielders Miguel Almirón and Julian Gressel made their respective contributions to maintain United’s offensive reign.
Head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino managed Martinez’s nonappearance as best as he could. He embraced Martinez back with open arms because he’s considered such a special threat for an attack oriented team.
“He’s an elite player,” Martino said. “It was a welcomed return because he’s a player with great capabilities. We’re happy to have him back.”
It was supposed to be a settled back in approach for Martinez’s first start since injury, but it was a full 90-minute period. United defeated Charleston Battery 3-2 with a goal from the one and only Martinez.
“Josef is an amazing player,” defender Anton Walkes said. “The little injury only made him better.”
Bobby Dodd stadium marked an emotional MLS home return for Martinez against the Columbus Crew. He subbed late in the second half and buried a rocket past the Columbus goalkeeper to put the Crew away 3-1.
He never missed a step and filled with tears following the Crew game.
A little over two and a half months marked the time since Martinez officially saw the pitch again for Atlanta United. Yet, he managed to collect three goals in his first four games back all competition, with seven total goals scored in the regular season.
“When you’re out for so long you just need to play,” Martinez said. “Players don’t like to run around on their own at practice, we want to play.”
Out of four games started and a total of seven appearances for his home squad, Martinez averaged a little under a goal and a half during a full 90-minute match, including 25 shots with 12 on goal.
Torino’s loss is Atlanta United’s gain. The injury may cause Martinez’s streak to be short-lived to an extent. Overall, the No. 7 striker hasn’t faltered when he steps foot on the pitch.
Whoever you ask whether it be his teammates, coaches or even a fan the response remains the same about Martinez’s ability to thrive up top. Midfielder Julian Gressel summed it up best on what makes Martinez such a unique and dynamic player…
“It’s Josef,” Gressel said.
“He’s a good player,” Gressel continued. “I think everyone saw that from the first day he set foot here in Atlanta, but you don’t just lose your soccer skills when you are injured.”