It’s been more than a year and a half since Atlanta United signed Pity Martinez from River Plate for $14 million. Atlanta had just won MLS Cup on the back of Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron. While Almiron was preparing to leave for Newcastle United, Pity was a highly-paid, highly-touted replacement. He represented Atlanta’s apparent status atop MLS. This exuberantly talented team would push forward with Josef, Pity, and new coach Frank de Boer.
They haven’t quite returned to their 2018 peak and sky-high hopes. They won a pair of trophies in 2019 — the US Open Cup and the Campeones Cup, the latter a bit superficial but still an accomplishment. They lost to Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference final. Throughout the year, though, they often seemed uneven, as though they couldn’t quite put their finger on a consistent approach. Pity didn’t blow anyone out of the water and Ezequiel Barco continued to struggle finding his fit. Josef carried the squad.
2020 has exposed the rest of the operation, as the team lost various key contributors and has been mostly stripped of parts aside from Josef, around whom they will now build.
Pity Martinez transfer to Al-Nassr
De Boer’s July firing after a disastrous MLS is Back performance wasn’t quite the culmination; it’s the transfer of Pity on Wednesday that signals Atlanta’s desire to move past mistakes.
Atlanta accepted a transfer offer of $18 million from Saudi club Al-Nassr, ending Pity’s generally disappointing MLS career. In 2,742 regular season minutes, he put up seven goals and 11 assists. His predecessor Almiron produced 21 goals and 28 assists in 5,154 minutes. Expecting Pity to match Almiron was unrealistic, but the Argentine did not ultimately approach the hopes many had for him.
This year has been a struggle for Atlanta, who are now in the midst of a coaching search and another comb around the globe for exciting, likely younger attackers. Barco seems likely to be sold this winter. Atlanta hasn’t fared well the past couple of times they’ve dropped big bucks on attacking talent, so they’ll hope to do a better job this time.
One piece of good news for the Five Stripes: Per Felipe Cardenas at The Athletic, Atlanta is expected to make a profit off of Pity. They will not have to endure a sunk cost, and while they won’t have the pleasure of sending him off to the Premier League like they did with Almiron, they have transfer dollars to spend and a designated player spot to fill.
The Atlanta rebuild is on
In July, they picked up Mexican winger Jurgen Damm on a free transfer. Damm is 27, a veteran of the Mexican national team, and a longtime pacey fixture of Liga MX. He picked up an assist in an 11-minute cameo off the bench against Orlando recently, and promises to feature more now that Pity is gone.
It’s hard to guess where exactly Atlanta will find their next creative centerpiece(s), though they will surely prioritize either young, promising players or guys in their prime. They’ve frequently found talent in Latin America, though Josef was playing in Serie A when they signed him. They’ll likely leave the “well-known aging European” demographic to Inter Miami and others.
Their hire of a new coach will be crucial in integrating whoever the new talent ends up being. De Boer clashed with Pity, and the two didn’t seem to be compatible with each other. Tata Martino, their inaugural coach, put together a fast-moving, pressing system that kept Atlanta on the front foot and generated chances to run into space. Their new manager should enter with similar progressive ideas.
They’ll have to focus on acquiring auxiliary pieces to make a new system work. The departures of talents like Julian Gressel, Darlington Nagbe, and Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez didn’t do De Boer any favors this season. Scour the MLS market, the youth academy, and anywhere else there may be potential contributors.
A better approach could yield better results with a new highly-touted Pity replacement. They’ll look back on the Pity years with the regret that his flash-in-the-pan moments never turned into something greater.