Of all the games to make MLS history, Josef Martínez just had to do it in this game, didn’t he?
Facing none other than Atlanta United – the club where he catapulted to legendary status from 2017-22 – for the first time, the Inter Miami CF superstar striker opened his 2023 scoring account and led his new team to a nervy 2-1 win. Even more important, the Venezuelan international’s brace established him as the fastest player in league history to reach 100 regular-season goals.
Saturday night’s dramatics at DRV PNK Stadium – which included Martínez breaking the scoreless deadlock with a 59th-minute penalty kick goal on his first touch of the ball shortly after entering as a second-half substitute, before scoring the game-winner (75') with a vintage close-range finish – came straight out of a Hollywood script.
The irony wasn’t lost on the man of the hour.
“I think this was one the strangest moments of my life,” the 29-year-old said post-match. “… It feels weird. It feels strange, like a mixture of happiness and sadness.”
“Surreal” could be another way to put it.
Martínez, the Atlanta icon who led the Five Stripes to MLS Cup glory in 2018 – the same season he took home Landon Donovan MLS Cup and MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi honors – left the club in January on less-than-ideal terms, following a tumultuous 2022 that saw him suspended for conduct issues before his contract was bought out at season’s end.
A winter move to Miami on a reported max-TAM deal promised a clean slate for the swaggering forward. However, it was far from a dream start to life in Southern Florida, where Martínez went goalless after 10 matchdays, eventually losing his place in the starting lineup.
Despite keeping the striker on the bench for the beginning of Saturday’s match, Herons' head coach Phil Neville was convinced the stars were aligned for Martínez to put in a memorable performance.
“I had a feeling before the game that we were gonna win, I had a feeling that Josef was going to be the match-winner,” Neville said. “… If there’s ever gonna be a game where a script was written,” it was this one, he added.
Winners of two straight league matches, Miami are looking to enter Audi MLS Cup Playoffs positioning in the Eastern Conference after suffering through a six-game losing streak. For Neville, nights like this need to become the rule rather than the exception if that’s going to happen.
“He knows we believe in him, he knows he’s an important player," said Neville. "For us to be successful this year, Josef Martínez has to play well.”
Martínez himself is aware of the pressure on his shoulders and wants nothing more than to remain worthy of his monicker of "The King."
However, for at least one night, he's taking in the enormity of just what happened.
“I think today is one of the most important days of my life,” Martínez stated. “… That’s why this is such a beautiful sport.”