“He's still the king of Atlanta, and he will stay the king of Atlanta as long as he's there. Probably even after that, to be honest.”
That was Julian Gressel’s assessment of Josef Martinez last month, speaking on the podcast he co-hosts with Chicago Fire FC midfielder Fabian Herbers, in the wake of Gabriel Heinze’s unceremonious departure from Atlanta United and his former Five Stripes teammate’s rather obvious role in it.
Josef, you may recall, had a falling-out with Heinze in the Argentine’s final days in the ATL, prompting a brief exile from first-team activities, and if the lion’s share of United fans didn’t already support their star striker in that conflict, subsequent reporting about the locker-room environment under Heinze further vindicated him.
Martinez has brought Golden Boot, MLS Cup, US Open Cup and Campeones Cup hardware to Georgia. He’s the face of the club, the avatar of their aggressive personality both on and off the field (when things are going well, at least), and the events of the past month or two have underlined the 2018 Landon Donovan MLS MVP's power at the club. Not so much in the political sense, though there is some of that, but something like a moral one.
He’s the keeper of the flame, ATLUTD’s conscience in addition to their most entertaining performer and fiercest warrior. He's the one who proudly proclaimed that it was his FC Barcelona, his Real Madrid back when he signed a new contract in 2019. He doesn’t hesitate to call out teammates, coaches and staff, or even stalk off the training ground when his high expectations aren’t met.
That’s the context for Josef’s striking remarks to the media on Friday, where he issued both a welcome and a declaration of sorts to new head coach Gonzalo Pineda ahead of Sunday’s nationally-televised visit from LAFC and his friend and scoring rival Carlos Vela (4 pm ET | ESPN ESPN Deportes).
“We’ve talked to [Pineda], and nothing’s going to change [in tactical terms],” said Martinez, flipping back and forth from Spanish to English during the post-practice availability, another sign of his centrality in ATL. “The club shouldn't change because of a player or a coach. The club has to be the club. Many mistakes were made that shouldn't happen again. We're a little tired of the same story.
“I think what [Pineda] has done in Seattle will slap us with humility.”
Josef is a fascinating character, an intensely driven performer who simultaneously exudes charisma and humanity. As now-D.C. United wide man Gressel noted, he’s a larger-than-life figure in his club’s history regardless of what happens from here on out, and an X-factor who almost single-handedly makes Atlanta a contender when he’s healthy and in form. He’s clearly eager for Pineda to steady the ship and restore their lofty ambitions, but he’s also shown that he will stand up for his teammates, his principles and his ideas of what ATLUTD should be.
Right now, that means extending the good work Valentino has done to liberate and inspire the squad since Heinze’s departure. They’re clearly boosted by last weekend’s 3-2 win at Columbus, which ended a 12-game winless streak and actually occurred without Josef as he sat out with a red-card suspension suffered in their prior match at CF Montréal.
“I think we feel freedom and are happy. That’s what we have to recover because that's what we are,” said Martinez, harking back to the Five Stripes’ high-flying exploits under Tata Martino. “For a lot of time, we played the beautiful game. The last game against Columbus, I was in the palco [box seats] and said, ‘This is amazing because I don't see that maybe for a long time.’
“I don’t think that's going to change, the freedom that we've had in these games, and the joy and the good things we’ve been doing under Rob.”
Pineda’s arrival has been complicated by his contraction of COVID-19, which along with other aspects of his move from the Seattle Sounders, will prevent him from taking charge in person until next week. Valentino is at the helm for their next two matches, charged with keeping the transition going since Heinze’s departure 13 league games into his MLS sojourn.
If Pineda needed any further reminders of the risks and rewards of his new gig, Martinez’s candor will suffice. The Mexican’s time in Seattle under Brian Schmetzer familiarized him with a high-performance culture and all the trappings that surround it, which should help him touch down in Atlanta with credibility at his disposal.
But Pineda will need to win over his star striker quickly and effectively. Just ask his star striker.
“When you do this kind of job, you have pressure every day,” said Josef. “We don't care about the pressure. We have to win every day. Every game we have to f*ing win.”