ATLANTA — As Atlanta United navigates the dangerous landscape of the newly reformatted Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, manager Frank de Boer seems to prefer keeping one of his most talented players, Pity Martinez, on the bench.
Most were stunned to see Martinez out of Atlanta’s starting XI vs. the New England Revolution on Decision Day presented by AT&T, but it could’ve been explained as an opportunity for the Argentine to rest, having started the team’s previous 11 games. Similarly, it could’ve been De Boer sacrificing his spot to give players coming back from injury, like Ezequiel Barco, minutes to regain match sharpness.
But after the former River Plate star didn't feature in Saturday's 1-0 victory over New England in Round One, it became clear that the decision was primarily tactical. And if Martinez didn’t start against the bottom seed in the Eastern Conference, it’s hard to see him displacing any of his teammates throughout the playoffs, barring an injury or suspension.
“The only signal he can give me is at training to be ready,” De Boer told media Tuesday when asked about his conversations with Martinez. “If you are disappointed in those first days, then you can be disappointed. That, I accept.
“But then you have to be focused again to help your teammates, first of all, but especially to help yourself,” De Boer added. “If not, you give me ammunition to say 'I'm right.' That's not only for him, but for every player. Also, you have to be ready when you step in, because if you didn't train well for two weeks, then you don't give yourself confidence, you don't give me confidence, you don't give your teammates confidence.”
It’s a bold choice, to say the least. Not only was Pity one of the highest-profile signings in MLS history after being named the 2018 South American Footballer of the Year, but the attacking midfielder has a proven track record of shining the brightest on the biggest stages. Martinez scored three times in the 2018 Copa Libertadores, including in the final when River Plate defeated Boca Juniors.
“Well, it’s a nice guy to have available, right? South American Player of the Year, I think that’s a positive,” said veteran Atlanta midfielder Jeff Larentowicz. “His confidence is fine. His ability to change a game is there. His ability to do the things that he’s always done is still there. It’s frustrating.
“I’ve been in that position this year not too long ago," Larentowicz continued. "You just have to be ready. You talk about experience, and that’s a guy with a ton of experience. To step on the field, I think he has the ability to unlock a game. If he plays, then I think that’s a huge positive for us.”
If there’s anyone who can sympathize with Pity’s plight, it’s Barco, who former head coach Tata Martino left on the bench last season as Atlanta marched to their first MLS Cup title.
“It surprised me a little bit because Pity’s a great player,” Barco said through a translator. “But as players, we have to adapt to what the coaching staff wants to do. Every player has to be ready. You are never sure when your moment is going to come.
“I have a good understanding with Pity. We’ve played well together this season when we are on the field at the same time. I think we both contribute to the attack and we also work together to try to help defensively as well. I think we have a good understanding and are trying to help the attack and get the ball to Josef [Martinez].”
Still, De Boer offered a ray of hope for Pity and other Five Stripes' reserves pining for a shot at significant minutes as they prepare for Thursday’s semifinal clash with the Philadelphia Union at home (8 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN4, TVAS in Canada).
“I know it's difficult sometimes for players, but we're not going to do it with 11, we're not going to do it with 12 or 13," De Boer said. "No, we'll do it with the whole roster. So you expect other players to give their best at training. When you're playing, you have to do the same. Yourself, to the other players, to be respectful to them."