Why Atlanta United moved on from Josef Martínez & what's next

Josef Martinez - goodbye to Atlanta

Over cigars in Carlos Bocanegra’s backyard, Atlanta United’s VP/technical director and Josef Martínez discussed the inevitability of the star striker one day leaving the club.

That was in 2020 when Martínez was rehabbing from a long-term ACL injury that came on the heels of a 27-goal season a year before.

“That’s professional sports,” Bocanegra shared of their conversation. “And we're gonna have to part our ways.”

That day arrived Wednesday, when Atlanta United announced a contract buyout of the Venezuelan international, paving the way for him to sign with Inter Miami CF.

And while on the surface it would appear this solution was the only one, given the contentious end to Martínez's storied six seasons in Atlanta, Bocanegra insisted it was a sporting decision based on in-depth analysis.

“This was a sporting decision,” he said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning shortly after the news became official. “That’s it – it’s business and sometimes those are hard, but he's really intelligent. He's been great through the whole process with this and like I said, it's not been contentious. It's been, let's try to figure out a solution. He means a lot. He means a lot to the city. He means a lot to the club. He helped us get to where we are today.”

Legacy in Atlanta

What Martínez accomplished during his time in Atlanta was “pretty unrivaled,” Bocanagra said.

No one in league history scored 100 goals in all competitions faster than Martínez, who netted 103 and provided 17 assists over 144 combined regular season and Audi MLS Cup Playoffs matches.

He was named the Landon Donovan MLS MVP in 2018 and won the league’s Golden Boot presented by Audi that year by scoring a then-MLS record 31 goals, helping lead Atlanta to the MLS Cup title that season (their second in existence).

Martínez was also a three-time MLS Best XI presented by Continental Tire selection and the face of a club that experienced a meteoric rise to MLS elite and regularly draws record crowds at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“It's an emotional day. These conversations in general have been difficult to have because he's a good kid,” Bocanegra said. “And what he's done for the city and what he's done for the club is pretty unrivaled, right? He's always going to be a part of Atlanta United. He knows the doors are always open here for him.”

The 29-year-old’s no-trade clause in his contract further complicated the situation. But, according to Bocanegra, Martínez and his family loved being in the United States so the sides worked on the next step.

Granted, Bocanegra admitted, one of the greatest goalscorers in league history landing at an Eastern Conference rival was less than ideal.

“That was discussed quite a bit. It's definitely not a place we would prefer him to go, in-conference rival, they're a very ambitious club. That really was not an ideal situation for us,” Bocanegra said.

“Maybe we could have been really nasty in this situation on our side and just kind of held out, held out and not done something like that. Josef means a lot to the club.”

What’s next?

So where does Atlanta go from here? Clearly there’s a need to sign a center forward and there’s a now-vacated Designated Player spot available alongside Thiago Almada and Luiz Araújo if the club, which has a history of big spending, opts to go that route.

Whatever solutions arise in the No. 9 position, Bocanegra insists filling the shoes of the departed Goal King may be an impossible task.

“I don't want to use the word replacement. It's more the player that's going to come in. I want to kind of temper the expectations,” he said. “What we're not going to be able to do is replace the 2017 Josef Martínez that came in here, so I don't want to put extra expectations on the next forward that we bring in. But obviously we're gonna go look to get an impact player that can come in and lead the line, score goals and help our team.”

The signing could also be the first major one since Garth Lagerwey arrived as club president and CEO in November, having led Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders FC to great heights as general manager in the 15 prior years.

“Obviously we need to start the season with a center forward, so we're gonna bring in someone that is impactful," Bocanegra said. "But we’re not going to rush into something that we don't feel comfortable with."

Miles Robinson update

Bocanegra also addressed another important bit of business, offering an update of sorts on Miles Robinson’s contract situation.

The USMNT center back, who is coming off an Achilles injury that cut short his 2022 season, has an offer on the table – but the 25-year-old has yet to sign it.

Is he holding out for more money after seeing fellow national team center backs Aaron Long (LAFC; free agency) and Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC; DP contract) earn more lucrative deals?

“As an update on Miles, the contract is still on the table. He's not signed it so far,” Bocanegra said. “But we'll have continued discussions.

"We’re not in a rush with him, there's no timeline or deadline that we're taking it off the table. We've had continued good discussions. So that's kind of where things stand with him.”