Josef Martinez calls out Atlanta United players, front office

An impassioned Atlanta United team meeting after Saturday night’s 3-0 home loss to Austin FC gave way to a tense media availability from star striker and captain Josef Martinez, to put things lightly.

The 2018 Landon Donovan MLS MVP, for starters, felt the result wasn’t an anomaly or leaving anyone in their locker room feeling stunned. They're 2W-7L-4D since mid-April.

“This happened months ago so it’s not a surprise for us,” Martinez said. “We played like this months ago.”

That bears out in the Eastern Conference standings, where Atlanta sit 11th and are in danger of missing the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the second time in three years. For a club that took MLS by storm during their 2017 expansion year, and won MLS Cup in 2018, Martinez said “life is gone.”

Impact of injuries

Might the laundry list of injuries to first-choice starters be to blame? Surely, a team can’t weather losing goalkeeper Brad Guzan (Achilles), center back Miles Robinson (Achilles) and defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso (ACL) for the 2022 season and be fine. What about long-term absences to fullbacks Andrew Gutman (quad) and Brooks Lennon (MCL), plus a slew of other knocks?

There’s some truth there, but Martinez isn’t accepting any excuses.

“The injuries isn’t the biggest problem,” said the 29-year-old, whose own knee operation kept him out nearly two months earlier this year. “We play soccer and you can have injuries every day. And some people still think ‘oh, because we lost this guy, this guy…’

“We all make mistakes and we are professionals. We’re not kids anymore. And if you come here you have to know what you have to do. And if you don’t come here for 100 percent, probably you don’t have to choose to play at this club.”

Josef Martinez
"King Josef" voiced his displeasure after a lopsided home defeat. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

Fight missing?

Martinez also called out his teammates’ fight and resolve, hinting at a collection of individuals rather than a cohesive group.

“This didn’t happen today, it happened at the beginning of the season,” Martinez said. “We play because we have to play, but in the training some people don’t have that energy. Some people don’t know what they have to do, or they don’t recognize or appreciate the jersey and what we’ve been doing for a long time, and probably that’s the biggest problem.”

Player recruitment concerns

The Venezuelan international contended “probably this team needs more different players” and questioned how the broader group’s been assembled. Atlanta, per MLS Players Association salary data, have the most expensive squad in the league.

Player recruitment, ranging from Designated Player acquisitions – Luiz Araujo and Thiago Almada commanded a reported combined $28 million in transfer fees the past two windows – to intra-MLS moves will draw some scrutiny locally and nationally.

“If you want to bring guys here,” Martinez said, “it’s because they want to play here and it’s not because of business, and that’s been happening for a long time.”

As for a path forward, Martinez suggested deeper chasms need to be resolved for the good times to return.

“I’m the first one to recognize that we’ve had bad games. And we’ve also brought many good games. And we’ve brought this city a lot of joy. But it’s a strange year and that’s life,” Martinez said.

“Sometimes we have to fight with what we have and move forward. The people who are with us know, like the 70,000 people who were here tonight know, that they’re with us. And we hope the good times come back again.”

Last year in ATL?

The sour mood left Martinez noting “it could be my last season here” in Atlanta and that he has “one year left” on his contract after 2022. He’s among the league’s best-ever scorers, tallying 94 goals and 15 assists across 119 regular-season games – numbers that’d surely be higher if he hadn’t missed most of 2020 with a torn ACL.

He’s flirted with retirement before and has clear frustrations mounting as ATLUTD struggle to reclaim the early successes enjoyed under now-Mexico manager Tata Martino.

“I try to do my best,” said Martinez, a player who once called Atlanta his Real Madrid or Barcelona. “Sometimes I can play good, sometimes not. Sometimes I can score, sometimes not. I put my whole body in the f—ing field. This is not discussed.”

Pineda apologizes

Martinez’s comments came after head coach Gonzalo Pineda arrived at his postgame press conference roughly an hour later than normal. And then an apology and guarantee followed suit.

“I apologize to the fans, I think they don’t deserve this,” said Pineda, who’s succeeded mid-year departures from Frank de Boer (July 2020) and Gabriel Heinze (July 2021), plus two interim managers in Stephen Glass and current assistant Rob Valentino. “They do an amazing job at supporting us and always being there for us and today’s performance was not acceptable. So I apologize. I take full credit for the loss, so it’s on me, and we will do better. I will make sure we will do better next time.”

Pineda said the details of their team meeting will remain private after many players talked, and he plans to change up the starting lineup. All told, Pineda felt a lack of competitiveness was apparent on the pitch.

“I think it's not only about tactics anymore. Yes we still want to play good football, but today I felt we weren't ready to fight in the game that they presented to us,” said Pineda, a former Seattle Sounders FC assistant who’s in his first full season. “I felt that I didn't prepare the team properly.”

Will that change Wednesday night when Real Salt Lake visit Atlanta on a quick turnaround for both clubs (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+)? That’s game two-of-three in a homestand as the Five Stripes truly enter their season’s second half.

“We will be fighting much, much better next game,” Pineda assured.

If that comes, based on Martinez’s remarks, it may only slightly patch the crevices.