At one point this winter, Atlanta United was closely linked to Paraguayan international Oscar Romero. Miguel Almiron’s national team teammate was all but ready to put on an Atlanta United jersey. At the last minute, a huge offer from Shanghai Shenhua that reportedly doubled the salary offered by Atlanta made Romero change his mind.
When Josef Martinez was announced as Atlanta United’s third Designated Player a little over a month later, many wondered if he could live up to what was expected out of Romero. As the rumors on Martinez were breaking in late January, I wrote this in a column at Dirty South Soccer.
“I’ve had quite a few questions on Twitter about my thoughts on the deal and if it is a good one for Atlanta. As much as I liked the idea of Oscar Romero joining this team, Martinez would be an even better fit.”
Romero is a great player who would make any team better, but Julian Gressel’s emergence has made his absence easier to absorb. Martinez gave the team something it did not have, the mix of speed and strength at the forward position that ignites Tata Martino’s pressing style. He is one of the fastest players in Major League Soccer, and his pace was on display on the snow-covered field of TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis last weekend. His hat trick earned him Alcatel MLS Player of the Week honors while Minnesota United’s back line is still trying to find him.
Over the last year, Martinez has also become an integral part of the Venezuelan national team. He had a hat trick against Bolivia in November and now has nine goals in 37 appearances. Venezuela has struggled during the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but Martinez’s emergence has been a bright spot for La Vinotinto (literally translates to red wine; it’s the nickname for the Venezuelan national team due to its classic burgundy jerseys). While not mathematically eliminated, Venezuela’s games this month against Peru and Chile are mostly for pride.
Martinez’s world class speed and shifty dribbling starting opening eyes after debuting for Caracas FC at 17 years old. Eight goals in 36 games at his age attracting European offers and he settled on Switzerland’s BSC Young Boys, a club known for developing talented players. It took him a while to get settled, but a short loan stint to fellow Swiss club FC Thun that saw Martinez score eight goals in 18 games got him back on track.
Scoring goals in these amounts before your 21st birthday draws the attention of even bigger clubs, and soon Torino FC of Italy’s famed Serie A came calling. Over his two-and-a-half seasons in Italy, Martinez saw his playing time diminish as he struggled to settle. His performances with Venezuela, along with his ever-present raw talent, made him attractive to other clubs. While Newcastle United, Birmingham City, and Hamburg made inquiries with Torino this January, it was the opportunity to play for and learn from Tata Martino that made Atlanta United Martinez’s destination.
The deal is a loan with an option for Atlanta United to purchase his full contract. If Martinez keeps winning Player of the Week awards, expect to see him wear Atlanta’s red and black stripes for quite a while.