What’s a mob to a king?
In this case, it’s a swarming, sentient get-well-soon card. And, also, you know, a bunch of literal get-well-soon cards.
Saturday night in Atlanta, the mob at Mercedes-Benz Stadium put forth a collection of chants and signs and well-wishes that all had the same message: We miss you, Josef.
You couldn’t avoid that message. Before Atlanta United’s 2-1 win over FC Cincinnati, you could walk around to different tailgates and stumble into “cards” ready to be signed and shipped to Josef Martinez. How exactly you send giant poster boards to star athletes is unclear, but people signed them confidently, and the thought does count.
And then, directly before kickoff, all you had to do was look to the supporters’ section at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to see a giant number seven outlined in gold and black foil. If you looked closer, you could make out a bright gold two-pole with the simple decree, “Long Live the King.”
If you had been distracted or maybe if you got to your seat a few minutes late, you couldn't miss what happened when seven minutes showed on the clock around the stadium. In honor of the shirt number synonymous with Atlanta's hero, a loud cheer rang out immediately followed by a full minute of singing Josef’s name (watch it here).
Josef didn’t make a public appearance (although he was in-stadium) but if he had, you have to think he would have gotten a cheer larger than or equal to both of Atlanta United’s goals. He may have even received a louder ovation than Spike the service dog did at halftime, but that might be stretching it.
There was always a chance that a home opener without Josef might feel more like a wake than anything else but it helped that the players paid tribute to their fallen star as much as the crowd. Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez, the players who will bear the heaviest brunt of the weight left by Josef’s absence, put on a show. When Pity found Barco in the box for a Josef-esque near post goal that clattered in, Zeke took the chance to put seven fingers in the air.
Even people who fall somewhere in between player and member of the crowd did their part.
Watch: Gass & Doyle on Atlanta sans Josef
How Atlanta fared without Josef
After the win, roughly 75 percent of media questions centered around Josef. The simple consensus was that one of the greatest forwards in MLS history being out for an extended period is a big loss and that everyone else needs to step up to make up for it. And for tonight, everyone did.
Pity and Barco deserve a second mention, but Emerson Hyndman scored for a second straight game and replacement forward Adam Jahn “worked his balls off,” in the words of Frank de Boer. I’m not sure if a 10-goal season is in Jahn’s future but the work rate was real. Who knows how often Hyndman will be able to keep finding the net and if Jahn will improve or regress, but there’s some encouragement to be had from finding the net twice against a team that felt very comfortable putting large numbers behind the ball.
Bigger tests are coming, though. Atlanta heads to Estadio Azteca on Wednesday to face one of the continent’s best teams. Last year’s worst MLS team that currently lacks a permanent coach is one thing. Club America in Mexico City is a beast a few notches up the ladder.
But for now, a crowd of 69,000-plus went home nice and happy, and confident that Josef received their message. Now the task is for the team and the fans to meet each other’s still lofty expectations from here on out. A head without its crown is still pretty heavy in Atlanta.
EDITOR'S NOTE: J. Sam Jones is a soccer writer and columnist and regular contributor to DirtySouthSoccer.com. You can listen to him stumble through discussions about Atlanta United on the Dirty South Soccer podcast network and follow him @J_SamJones if you don’t mind occasional ALL CAPS YELLING about American Football and Pitchfork reviews.