After Atlanta United’s 1-0 win over LAFC on Sunday night, Josef Martinez met with a fan in the concourse outside the Atlanta locker room. It just so happens she’s not only a fan but a local artist named Lindsay Jason.
She delivered Josef a drawing: El Rey on a King of Spades card bearing his likeness celebrating a goal. The same celebration he did about an hour before to mark his first goal at Mercedes-Benz Stadium since Oct. 24, 2019.
He walked over. Gave Jason a hug. Asked her how her day had been. Signed the card. Then gave her his jersey.
A perfect moment for one fan. A celebratory moment for Josef. And a moment that almost didn’t happen.
“It’s nice because I had some really good years and then I was out for a really long time with an injury," Martinez said after the game. "And then in that time, I learned to value my body and also every moment off the field. Especially the tough moments off the field. So I say thanks to God for letting me come back. Because six months ago for me it was impossible. And I didn’t want to play anymore.”
In December 2020, 10 months after he tore his ACL in the first game of the 2020 season, Martinez experienced complications from the scar tissue in his knee. There was an infection. He underwent three surgeries in five days and wondered if the first game of 2020 might be his last.
“I was very serious. I had other complications. Those were tough moments,” he said.
“But you know, I go every day to the training ground and see my teammates. And see the support of the people and the fans and my family. They had my back. They pushed me to continue to move forward and that’s why I’m here.”
He’s here and he’s slowly becoming a presence on the field again. Increasingly, he looks willing and able to do everything pre-2020 Josef could and would do. He’s making runs in behind. He’s scored three times in his last three games. And he’s picking fights with anyone brave enough to challenge him.
It’s not quite the same Josef. It’s not quite the same Atlanta United either. But both are beginning to look a lot more like themselves as of late. It’s tough to decide which one is creating which. But if we’re trying to decide if it’s the king that makes a castle or the castle that makes a king, it’s probably important to note that Josef does a hell of a lot more for this team than find the back of the net.
“I mean, he scores and that’s important. But we obviously missed him the last game and he was huge in other ways in terms of the team culture and being around the group,” interim head coach Rob Valentino said. “He gave everything he could and he gets the goal and nearly gets another one. But you can see that the fans love him. I love him. And we’re all happy he’s back to somewhat of his normal self. We’ll keep pushing him and I think he’ll keep challenging this group to want more.”
For now, “more” for Atlanta United means getting back into a playoff spot. The Five Stripes are five points away from seventh place in the Eastern Conference. That’s even after a miserable stretch of the season that saw them go winless in 12 straight games.
They’ve won two in a row for the first time since the first two games of 2020, and with new manager Gonzalo Pineda and new DP Luiz Araujo on the horizon, things are as optimistic in Atlanta as they’ve been in a long time. Now that Josef Martinez has scored at home, it feels pretty likely that he’ll do it a few more times in the nine home games Atlanta have over their next 13 total.
Plain and simple: If Josef is back, Atlanta United is back. Neither is quite there yet. But that doesn’t make a home goal that almost never happened feel any less special. Or any easier to describe.
“It’s a lot of words, man. A lot of words. Because I feel a lot of love for people. And I try to do my best,” Martinez said
“I had a lot of pressure because I needed to score here. I had four goals, but they were all away. And today it means more because I like to play against the good teams, and in front of an amazing crowd and amazing fans. So it’s a little bit special. I wanted my goal so bad. But most importantly we got three points."