Atlanta United's 2022 season has not gone to plan and certainly has not gone quietly. It continues to go from bad to worse.
The latest lowlight for the Five Stripes came on Wednesday when the club suspended star forward Josef Martinez for one game due to "conduct detrimental to the team." Head coach Gonzalo Pineda admitted the next day that there have been "multiple cases or situations" of "bad behavior" with the club legend.
“This time we felt it was the right time to take action," Pineda told local media at training on Thursday.
The suspension comes after an argument following the club's 2-1 loss at the Portland Timbers last weekend. The Athletic reported that Martinez knocked over a catering table filled with chicken and rice in the locker room, prompting the argument.
“We were arguing, we were having a discussion, but we were always 2-3 yards away from each other," Pineda said. "We did not have a physical altercation.”
The loss leaves Atlanta at 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings, six points below the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs line with just five games left.
Pineda said the decision to suspend Martinez was a collective one between him, his staff and the front office. Pineda added that Martinez has not apologized to him.
This incident is the latest in chasms widening between Martinez and the club where he's become an icon. Martinez has been public with frustration in the past, including with previous head coaches Frank de Boer and Gabriel Heinze.
Few, if any, players in MLS can match the combination of on-field excellence plus status within his city that Martinez earned from 2017-19. He had 77 goals and 11 assists in just 83 matches over that timeframe, leading the club to the 2018 MLS Cup, the 2019 US Open Cup and 2019 Campeones Cup. In the process, he elevated to one of the premier figures in Atlanta's sporting culture, alongside beloved Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young and Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña, stars for the city's respective NBA and MLB franchises.
Now, Martinez has found himself struggling to recapture form of old following a torn ACL at the beginning of 2020 and rehab complications that led to numerous further surgeries. He's managed a team-leading eight goals in 1,329 minutes this season, but has started just one of Atlanta's last six games, with Pineda preferring Ronaldo Cisneros at center forward.
Still, Pineda hopes Martinez will return on Monday and be re-engaged with the club.
"I was very clear with him that he's welcome back on Monday," Pineda said. "He's valuable to all of us here, he’s a great player. And I want him back. It's just a matter of what is more important, the culture or scoring goals? And for me culture. It’s culture over anything.”
Pineda said they would "cross that bridge if we get there" if Martinez was to not show up Monday. The Venezuelan international has one more year left on his contract after this season. Martinez is the leading scorer in club history, with 110 goals in all competitions.
“We’re all human beings, we all have good sides and we all have bad sides," Pineda said. "The good sides of Josef are massive. He’s a great person, I have no doubt about it. He has a great heart. But as anyone else, we all make mistakes.”
“We still have a good relationship and I can easily talk to him," Pineda added. "I have nothing against him.”
Pineda didn't answer directly when asked if he wanted Martinez back in 2023, saying he's focused only on the game this weekend and continuing to fight for the playoffs.
Atlanta host Toronto FC on Saturday evening (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+) without Martinez.