Josef Martinez - Atlanta United - Finger point

More than a calendar year will have passed between Atlanta United appearances for superstar forward Josef Martinez, but the wait is almost over. 

The Designated Player is back in training as he completes his recovery from a torn ACL suffered on Feb. 29, 2020 against Nashville SC, stalling his fourth MLS season just as it began. Now, the Five Stripes expect he'll be ready for their opening match in 2021, a Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 opener at Costa Rican club Alajuelense.

“The expectation is that he’s fit and available for selection for our first game on April 6th,” technical director Carlos Bocanegra told media during a virtual press conference on Friday.

The 27-year-old Venezuelan has an astounding 77 goals in 84 MLS appearances since arriving for the club's inaugural campaign in 2017. Martinez was named Landon Donovan MLS MVP in 2018 with a then-record 31 goals in 34 appearances, helping lead Atlanta to win MLS Cup that year.

Martinez also helped guide the club to US Open Cup and Campeones Cup titles in 2019. Due to injury, his 2020 season was limited to 69 minutes. 

“We don’t want to expect him to be the 30-goal Josef on April 6th," Bocanegra cautioned. "It’s going to take him a little bit of time to get back into his rhythm. But his movement and shooting and tackling with his teammates [in training] is great to see. He looks like the old Josef.”

Without Martinez's goals, Atlanta missed the playoffs in 2020 and underwent a managerial change midway through the season. The club then appointed rising Argentine manager Gabriel Heinze, who led his first training sessions with the club this week as they prepare for 2021.

In addition to Martinez's return to health, Atlanta have made key additions via midfielders Santiago Sosa and Franco Ibarra, as well as veteran striker Lisandro Lopez. They're also reportedly on the verge of signing Argentine center back Lautaro Giannetti.

“It’s been good to see him back out there with his teammates," Bocanegra said of Martinez. "He’s been working hard. It’s been a long road of recovery for him, physically and mentally, on top of the year of COVID. So, you can imagine what that’s like. It’s just good to see him back out there. A lot of credit to Josef. He’s getting back into form.”