The Frank de Boer era, and thus the first few weeks of Atlanta United FC's 2019 season, have gotten off to a rocky start.
After needing some home cooking to edge past Herediano in the round of 16 of the Concacaf Champions League, the Five Stripes dropped their season-opener, 2-0, at D.C. United last weekend. Then, in the first leg of their CCL quarterfinal tie vs. Liga MX club Monterrey, Atlanta fell 3-0.
Argentine playmaker Pity Martinez knows it’s been far below the club’s standard, though he sounds particularly optimistic ahead of Atlanta hosting expansion side FC Cincinnati on Sunday night (5 pm ET | ESPN in US; TSN4 in Canada).
"We haven't been at the level that the club and the coach want,” Martinez said. “We're working hard to be able to reach the level that the guys had last year. There's no way around it: You've just got to work – that's soccer – getting used to the new coach and what he wants, and trying to do the best we can to take Atlanta as high as possible.”
Martinez’s remarks are a nod to Atlanta’s rapid rise up MLS, before he was transferred from River Plate in January.
Under former head coach Tata Martino, now managing the Mexican national team, Atlanta won the 2018 MLS Cup, while Josef Martinez broke the single-season goal record and was named MLS MVP.
To carry that forward, Martinez is expected to play a major role, especially with Miguel Almiron sold this past offseason to Premier League side Newcastle. But if the first Monterrey match is any early indication, clubs might turn to aggressive fouling to slow down Martinez, the 2018 South American Footballer of the Year.
“The other day the game was hard [vs. Monterrey],” Martinez said. “There were clear fouls that [the referee] wasn't calling for us and others that weren't fouls that he called for them. I come from playing in a league where they kick a lot [in Argentina] but this surprised me a lot.
“It's not a complaint,” Martinez continued. “I’ll have to get used to this. But Monterrey knew that if they kicked us, it would throw us off. And it wasn't easy. We tried to continue to play soccer, which is what we like to do, but the other day they kicked us a lot.”
Fouling aside, Martinez said earlier this week that the team is still a work in progress under de Boer.
Now, Atlanta can look forward to their first game in front of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium faithful, who turned out a record crowd of 73,019 for last year’s MLS Cup triumph over the Portland Timbers. Cincinnati are recovering from their own tough start – the expansion side lost 4-1 in their MLS opener at the Seattle Sounders – though they won't roll over.
As for Martinez, time with Argentine national team lies in wait. He was recently called in by head coach Lionel Scaloni for matches against Venezuela on March 22 and Morocco on March 26. The 25-year-old has two prior caps, scoring in September against Guatemala.
“I’m very happy to be able to be called up again to the Argentina national team,” Martinez said. “It's a goal that's tough to reach. There are a lot of good players in Argentina who play at a very high level. And to be there is a source of pride. I want to keep doing things well to stay there. There are important things ahead for the national team like the Copa America and that's one I'm looking forward to – to be there."