MLS lost one of its biggest stars for an indefinite amount of time on Saturday night. Atlanta United striker Josef Martinez tore his ACL in the season opener against Nashville SC, and it would be surprising if he returned this season.
Like a mad man, Martinez attempted to play on after suffering the injury. He played injured in last year’s playoffs, too. That attitude, as much as his speed and skill and goal-scoring prowess, is what makes him so fun to watch.
Martinez plays with a mouthguard, and it’s fitting. He’d probably knock out some teeth if he didn’t. He’s 5’7, but goes into physical challenges with center backs who outweigh him by 50 pounds. Even though he’s one of the most skilled players in MLS, he puts his body on the line like a hockey player.
In my headcanon, Martinez is the closest thing MLS has to a protagonist. Maybe he’s the villain to you, and that would make sense. He’s the best player on the richest team, one with fans that came into an established league and acted like they invented soccer fandom. Atlanta has regularly beaten up on teams with one-fifth their budget. But the man at the helm of their success is a little dude who wasn’t expected to be a superstar, and plays every game like it’s his last.
At this point — year four of his MLS journey — it’s easy to forget that American soccer analysts were mostly Josef-skeptical. He arrived from Serie A having scored seven goals in 58 appearances, getting a lot of shots off but regularly looking like he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Atlanta’s management felt the same way; they took Martinez on loan with an option to buy, uncertain if they were willing to pay a seven-figure transfer fee for him.
It took three games for Atlanta to pay up after Martinez scored five times. He currently sits with an unbelievable 77 goals in 84 matches. It feels like he’s chasing down Chris Wondolowski’s all-time scoring record while Wondo is still playing. Martinez, before this injury, was well on track to cement himself as MLS’s best player ever, perhaps by a wide margin.
There are other fun players to watch this season. Carlos Vela, for instance, scored this goal on Sunday.
Chicharito is going to capture a lot of national attention. A couple of new arrivals from Liga MX, Lucas Zelarayán and Alan Pulido, scored excellent goals in Week 1. Jordan Morris and Paxton Pomykal are evolving into big-time players. Goals and good times will be had.
But to me, MLS will not feel the same without Josef Martinez. He’s the name at the top of the marquee, above the players who became famous to American fans for the things they did outside of America. A season without him will always feel like something’s missing.