Listed at 5-foot-7 but surely a bit of an exaggeration, Josef Martinez easily gets lost in the crowd.
Especially when he’s in front of the goal, scuffling for position among taller players.
Then it happens.
A deft move with the left foot. A blistering shot off the right foot. A towering header that winds up in the back of the net.
“He’s ruthless,” marveled Darren Eales, president of Atlanta United.
With nearly two months left in the regular season, Martinez has already become the most prolific scorer in the history of Major League Soccer. He notched his 28th goal last week in a victory at Orlando, surpassing the previous mark set by Roy Lassiter in 1996 — MLS’ debut season — and matched by Chris Wondolowski (2012) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (2014).
The 25-year-old Venezuelan has quickly established himself as an icon in a growing league, the face of its most dynamic franchise.
Yet he seems none too impressed by his accomplishments, the sweat dripping from his blond-highlighted pompadour after training on a blistering morning in the Atlanta suburbs.
“12:30,” he said through a translator, breaking into a big grin. “I’m hungry. That’s the only number I’m thinking about.”
Probably the most remarkable thing about Martinez’s record is the variety.
Seven goals with his right foot. Six with his left foot. Nine with his head. Six more off penalty kicks.
“Inside the area,” he said, “you can’t be forgiving.”
He reminds some of a young Wayne Rooney, the English star now in the twilight of his career at D.C. United.
In an interesting twist, they’ll be on opposite sides Sunday when one United plays another in Washington.
“Fearlessness, the way they play the game, just going hard all the time, just throwing their body around and doing whatever it takes to score goals,” said Atlanta United defender Michael Parkhurst. “That’s what has made them both very successful.”
No. 28 was a thing of beauty.
As Julian Gressel dribbled toward the top of the area, Martinez lingered off the left wing, getting lost just a bit while three Orlando defenders turned their attention toward Atlanta’s Miguel Almiron sprinting across the middle.
Gressel delivered a pass to Martinez, who quickly flicked the ball ahead and gave a shoulder-dipping deke that sent Orlando’s Jonathan Spector flying past him and put keeper Joe Bendik on his backside. Martinez turned the ball back inside off his left foot and calmly flicked it over Bendik with his right.
Martinez got his first big break in 2014, when he was acquired by Torino in Italy’s Serie A.
But he floundered as a winger, scoring only seven goals in 58 league games.
When Atlanta United was awarded an expansion franchise by MLS for the 2017 season, Martinez was one of the players who immediately caught their eye. He fit in with the franchise’s philosophy to build around young players with potential rather than aging, high-priced veterans. Coach Tata Martino, who once guided the Argentine national team, was familiar with Martinez’s talents from his appearances with Venezuela. Eales got on board after talking with Joe Hart, the English national team goalie who also played for Torino.
“Joe thought he would be a good goal scorer, and he gave him a great character reference,” Eales recalled. “But what really stood out, what I remember the most, was Joe saying how good his aerial ability was, the leaping and jumping ability he had for a guy his size.”
Indeed, some of Martinez’s most memorable efforts have come when he leaps high above the pitch, seemingly defying gravity as he punches the ball off his head with devastating force .
In his more natural position as a striker playing mostly down low, Martinez likely would’ve set a scoring record in Atlanta United’s inaugural season if not for missing more than two months because of a quadriceps injury suffered while playing for Venezuela. As it was, he finished with 19 goals in 20 MLS games.
Improving his game away from the ball, Martinez has been even more prolific his second year with the Five Stripes, eclipsing the scoring record in just 26 games. Even though everyone on the field knows who they’ve got to stop, he’s managed to score in all but seven matches — including the last nine in a row.
“That consistency is almost more incredible than the number of goals,” Eales said.
Martinez’s success has paralleled the entire franchise. Atlanta United made the playoffs in their first season and are vying for the Supporters’ Shield in Year 2. The team already has set numerous attendance records and is averaging more than 50,000 per game in 2018.
While Martinez is sure to draw some interest from European leagues, he has said repeatedly that he’s happy in Atlanta and can envision a long, successful career in MLS. Almiron seems the most likely candidate to depart during the next transfer window, but United’s success on the field and at the box office makes it likely they’ll be able to keep the bulk of the team together.
“We don’t have to do a sale to balance our books,” Eales said. “Josef is enjoying it here, and we love having him on our team.”