Josef Martinez MIA

Since Phil Neville became head coach of Inter Miami CF before the 2021 MLS season, he had the displeasure of seeing Josef Martínez line up for Atlanta United opposite his team on four occasions.

The 29-year-old Venezuelan international scored in all four games.

After one of the matches – Martínez and Atlanta had three wins and a draw, to boot – Neville and the star striker shared a cordial, informal chat.

"I had a conversation when I was in Atlanta with Phil after we played them a couple times," Martinez told media on Wednesday. "He tried to say ‘Oh you have to come here.’ I said, 'One day, this is possible.'"

That day is today, as Martínez has officially departed Atlanta and been unveiled as Miami's newest star. Martínez left Atlanta via a contract buyout after a fracture between him and the club where he's a legend, signing for another Eastern Conference team.

Martínez: Only the jersey has changed

Martínez, 29, scored 103 goals and provided 17 assists over 144 combined regular season and Audi MLS Cup Playoffs matches for Atlanta across six seasons, arriving in their inaugural 2017 season. He helped the club win MLS Cup 2018 and captured both Landon Donovan MLS MVP and Golden Boot presented by Audi awards that year as well. Martínez also won US Open Cup and Campeones Cup titles in 2019 with Atlanta.

This moment arrived thanks in no small part to Neville, who helped drive the interest and make sure Martínez knew he was wanted.

"Phil I think was the person who insisted the most [in signing me]," Martínez said. " ... He insisted and we’re here. I think it was a big piece of why we’re here. Since everything is new, you have to start little by little to get to know everyone. But they’ve opened the door for me, I’m one part of the team.

" … We’re soccer players and we want to win. We’re all competitive and I think that’s the most beautiful thing. I think it’s a beautiful group and I’m waiting for the first game."

Martínez tore his ACL at the beginning of the 2020 season and hasn't quite hit the same heights as his pyrotechnic first three seasons, as the injury has required subsequent surgeries. Still, Martínez had 21 goals and five assists in 3,097 minutes (a goal contribution every 119 minutes) over the last two seasons, despite the health concerns.

For his part, Martínez says he feels "very good" physically as he starts training with Miami.

"I'll keep on doing the same thing. The only thing that’s changed is the jersey," Martínez said. "The illusions are the same. I think that the most important thing for a striker is scoring goals, but for us the most important thing is winning. … Everybody wants to win. The most important thing is fighting till the end and doing the best you can."

Martínez's future was among the biggest storylines this offseason, as it was unclear how he'd depart Atlanta. Would it be a transfer abroad, a trade within MLS, or a buyout in which he'd be free to sign domestically or abroad?

Talks with Miami picked up steam earlier this month and all parties found a resolution that worked: Miami got Martínez on a non-DP deal, Martínez got to go to a team he preferred, and Atlanta opened a DP spot alongside Thiago Almada and Luiz Araújo.

"It’s not a place we would have preferred him to go, an in-conference rival," Atlanta technical director and VP Carlos Bocanegra admitted. "Ambitious club. We could've been nasty but Josef means a lot to the club. Ownership stepped up [and] we wanted to find a good resolution for Josef."

Martínez: "Nothing is over" with me and Atlanta fans

The heights for Martínez in Atlanta were through the stratosphere, but the ending wasn't as pretty.

Martínez fell out of favor during a frustrating 2022 season and then was suspended in September for an incident that reportedly involved a disagreement with head coach Gonzalo Pineda and flipping over a postgame meal table. Before that, Martínez gave an impassioned speech after a 3-0 home loss to Austin FC in early July, calling out teammates and the front office. His outsized importance to the club also contributed to two ex-head coaches – Gabriel Heinze and Frank de Boer – departing in recent years.

Martínez didn't expand on his break from Atlanta.

"Well, the last two months were very hard," Martínez said. "I have a good memory in Atlanta, but I’m looking forward. I have a new jersey now and I have to fight for that."

Instead, he focused on the positives: Major trophies, some of the biggest crowds in MLS history and goals – so many goals.

"A lot of beautiful memories; I was with them [Atlanta] for six years," Martínez said. "A lot of beautiful things, a lot of other things not so much. But at the end of the day, I’ll remember the beautiful memories, the trophies we won, the illusion and the love the people gave me."

Martínez is still beloved by most Atlanta United fans. He's someone who transcended the sport and became a legitimate superstar in his home city, alongside Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young and Atlanta Braves star Ronald Acuna. He was ATL through and through, something he keeps with him.

“Nothing is over," Martínez said. "Atlanta have a special side in my heart. We had great days together. They supported me in the good times & bad, I'm so grateful to them. I wish you the best.”

"It's an emotional day," Bocanegra said. "… The door is always open for him here."