Atlanta United won their season opener on Saturday night, 2-1 against Nashville SC. It was an acceptable, routine three points. Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez played well. They showed that defensive injuries (Miles Robinson is out and Franco Escobar was subbed off at half) shouldn’t hurt too badly.
But, as you’ve heard by now, there is one big caveat to all of this: Josef Martinez tore his ACL and is now likely out for the next 12 months.
When he first went down, he pointed desperately at a certain spot on his knee, a telltale bad sign. He limped off and then back on the field, trying to tough it out, but he ended up carried off on a stretcher. It was reminiscent of Klay Thompson’s injury in the NBA Finals last year. He tried to push through, and even jogged a bit, but in the end it was always a futile battle.
Josef Martinez ACL injury devastating for Atlanta, MLS
For numerous reasons, the injury is devastating. MLS loses its second-best player, a poster-child for the talents it wants to come to its league. Atlanta loses a year of the Josef Era, and will now have to make do without its best player. Fans miss out on a transcendent superstar, perhaps the best pure scorer the league has ever seen.
Martinez doesn’t seem like a player who could suffer such an injury. He’s too tough, too determined to go down for a year. He has been a consistent presence over the past three years in MLS, the leader of the league’s most popular team. His injury was big enough national news that it showed up as “breaking news” on ESPN’s bottom line.
It would be a vast overstatement to say that this injury is enough to put a fork in Atlanta’s season — just look at last year’s MLS Cup if you think it’s only the elite teams that emerge as contenders for the league’s biggest trophy. But the Five Stripes are much less likely to win a Supporters’ Shield or finish first in the Eastern Conference. Their Concacaf Champions League hopes are also severely jeopardized.
How will Atlanta replace Martinez?
There is no way to replace Martinez. His goal-scoring instincts and ability to generate quality chances at every possible opportunity are not replaceable characteristics. The good news for Atlanta is that it’s possible to replicate production out of the striker position; if you can generate consistent chances, a league-average forward will finish them. It’s a similar idea to goalkeepers, or centers in basketball, or even running backs in football, though it’s much easier to find capable running backs than soccer strikers. Put the ball in good spots, and you should score goals.
Josef was part of the reason Atlanta was able to put the ball in good spots. Atlanta will lose the inherent chance-creation is gravity provided. Defenders were naturally attracted to him, and Josef’s smart, incisive runs freed teammates in the final third. In transition, when Pity Martinez or Barco is maneuvering with the ball in space, Josef always knew where to be, and his dogged quickness assured that he always gets there. Half-chances became full chances with Josef’s composure and craftiness.
The backup, Adam Jahn, won’t provide the same instinct or style. Jahn is a career backup, a capable player to put on the field when you need a goal, but he is a low-usage hold-up player who can be an asset on set pieces. He won’t run the channels and draw defenders, and expecting him to reach even half of Josef’s goal output might be unrealistic.
Losing Brandon Vazquez in the expansion draft hurts a little bit more now. Vazquez obviously struggled for playing time behind Josef, but he was a young and promising option who absorbed Josef’s lessons over three years as his backup.
Possible Josef Martinez replacements
Atlanta could look around for a short-term signing (some have floated Bobby Wood) or an intra-MLS trade for a placeholder.
Maybe they could sign Daniel Sturridge in June after his worldwide betting ban expires. Sturridge is towards the end of his prime–but he was scoring meaningful goals for Liverpool just a season ago.
Given that Atlanta’s scouting networks probably weren’t actively looking for strikers before this injury, it will be hard to scramble and find a reasonable replacement.
Without Josef, Atlanta’s attacking plan will change. Pity and Barco will take on bigger roles, particularly in front of goal. It will be interesting to see how this affects Frank de Boer’s tactical plans. Josef’s injury could open a path for an Eastern Conference team, if Atlanta sputters. The dominoes will fall.