A sad but inevitable end: Martinez and Atlanta finalize divorce as iconic striker hooks up with Inter Miami
It's not the ending anyone would have wanted but, unfortunately, it had been coming.
Josef Martinez, the face of Atlanta soccer, is gone. And with him ends an era, one that put the city on the map as a true soccer powerhouse.
The other faces of that era are long gone. Gerardo 'Tata' Martino and Miguel Almiron departed years ago, taking the next step in their respective careers. But, through it all, Atlanta still had Josef, a player that the city had dubbed their king.
In recent years, though, the king's powers waned. Injuries took their toll. Controversies and infighting became the norm.
And that's what led us here, from one of the most brilliant unions between player and club in MLS history, to a somewhat sad and bitter divorce.
For years, it looked like Martinez would retire in Atlanta as a folk hero. Instead, they bought out his contract, meaning he'll now head to a heated rival, Inter Miami, on a free transfer.
That's going to sting but, in truth, a clean break was best for everyone involved. Martinez gets to join the club of his choice, while allowing Atlanta to move on.
What a partnership it was, though. Indeed, perhaps no player has better represented the club he played for than Martinez, and perhaps no club loved their star quite like Atlanta.
In the team's debut season, Martinez scored 19 goals, forming a frightening partnership with rising star Almiron.
The next year, he scored 31 times, winning MLS MVP and MLS Cup MVP while leading Atlanta to the league's biggest prize.
He was also a Best XI selection in each of his first three seasons as he rapidly rose up the goalscoring charts at a record-breaking pace.
An icon. A legend. Forever a 5-Stripe.— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) January 18, 2023
You loved Atlanta and Atlanta loved you right back. Thank you for all the memories, Josef ❤️🖤 pic.twitter.com/70rYoqcKkt
They were going to build him a statue one day, many said, with Martinez right up there among Atlanta's greats in the more 'traditional' American sports.
It wasn't just the on-field performance, but rather what Martinez meant to the city. In a league that is so often seen as on the periphery, Martinez helped put Atlanta United front and center in a town that embraced him from the start.
But he has been slowed by an injury, an ACL tear that caused him to miss virtually the entire 2020 season. He returned for 2021 and 2022 and remained the team's top scorer, but his game hasn't quite been the same. After scoring 19, 31 and 27 goals in his first three seasons, he's scored just 21 since.
The injury has undoubtedly played a role in this split, but so, too, have some off-field incidents, as Martinez has clashed with numerous coaches in recent years.
He was frozen out by Gabriel Heinze but the club took Martinez's side in that feud by parting ways with the Argentine after just 17 games. And then, last season, head coach Gonzalo Pineda suspended Martinez for one week for "conduct detrimental to the team".
Martinez was becoming more associated with controversy than goals. And it's likely no coincidence that Atlanta, as a result, has failed to reach anything close to their own expectations, as players and managers have come and gone with none able to truly steady the ship, even if there are plenty of other people to blame for his difficult period.
What happens now, though? For the first time in years, we are about to see an Atlanta United team without Martinez as its public face.
Atlanta are entering a new era, helmed by President and CEO Garth Lagerwey, who joined the club in the fall. Lagerwey is one of the best roster builders in MLS history and his work with the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake speaks for itself.
With Lagerwey's vision and Atlanta's ambition, the club should be just fine. Even if a true Martinez replacement takes time to find, with the club possibly waiting until the summer to bring in a true star, you'd bet on them finding it.
And, as for the here and now, Atlanta can now build around World Cup winner Thiago Almada, who should take a massive, massive leap this year.
The club still has some holes to fill, notably at centerback, in goal and, of course, at striker now, but this is still a pretty good team that has the ambition, the brains and, perhaps most importantly, the DP spot to get better.
Háblame Miami 👊 @JosefMartinez17 pic.twitter.com/jETRnopqxN— Inter Miami CF (@InterMiamiCF) January 18, 2023
As for Martinez, he'll now have all the motivation in the world to prove the doubters wrong. Atlanta buying him out sends a clear message: that the club wanted to be rid of him. He'll, thus, be desperate for revenge.
Which should, of course, work to Inter Miami's significant advantage, as they essentially back into having a Best XI-caliber striker on a "prove it" deal.
They didn't have to burn a DP spot to bring in a legitimate MLS star, even if that does depend on Martinez's health. For Miami, this is an obvious risk worth taking, especially given Gonzalo Higuain's retirement this past fall.
"It’s not a place we would have preferred him to go, an in-conference rival, an ambitious club," acknowledged Atlanta United Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra. "We could've been nasty but Josef means a lot to the club... we wanted to find a good resolution for Josef."
Miami can now bet on Martinez at striker and use their own DP spots elsewhere. Alejandro Pozuelo may still return, and the thought of one former MVP in the Spaniard feeding another MVP in Martinez is enticing.
Rodolfo Pizarro's future also remains somewhat of a mystery, and then there's the third DP spot opened up by Higuain's departure. With Martinez, they can go any which way and, for a club with the allure of Miami, that's a whole lot of fun.
That's also one way to describe Martinez's time in Atlanta: a whole lot of fun. He was a trailblazer, a legendary figure, an icon in a city that truly built its soccer history from the ground up over a span of a few years.
Prior to Martinez, Atlanta had little of that soccer culture and, while he's far from the only person to have contributed to it, he has been the poster boy since his arrival.
But all things come to an end, right? Especially in this sport, there comes a time to move on. And it was time for the club and the player to go their separate ways.
We can only hope, though, that one day they'll be reunited, perhaps when Martinez's playing days are over, so that Atalanta can give him the flowers, and maybe even the statue, that he earned with all of those goals.