Davies: Atlanta's Josef Martinez enters rarified air among MLS strikers

With his fifth goal of the season in a 5-0 victory over expansion side LAFC – his team's fifth game of 2018 – Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez became the league’s most prolific early-career striker: No one in MLS history has scored more goals through the first 25 regular-season games.

Not record-setter Stern John (1998) or soon-to-follow MLS legends Mamadou Diallo (2000) and Carlos "Pescadito" Ruiz (2002), all of whom tallied 23 goals in the same span. That’s highly impressive considering the amount of talented strikers that have graced our league.

In the 16 years since a player last pushed this boundary, the level of competition in the league has vastly improved. There are greater resources, raising the level of quality on the field. The athleticism within the players ranks among the best in the world. The tactics imposed are making it difficult to create those breakthrough scoring chances. The league has grown to 23 teams, meaning more travel, more games and more stress on the body. And even the greatest strikers can have an off day.

And yet, Martinez arrived – and remains – an effective goal scorer. With his off-the-shoulder runs and his timing, a knack for tip-toeing the offside lines and waiting for the right time to capitalize, he’s precise with his shots, and can finish with both feet, rendering him unpredictable. 

He’s dangerous in the air, despite his 5-foot-7 stature; As Saturday's snap header showed (watch above), he is great at creating separation from his defender, which often provides uncontested opportunities on goal. He’s quick and shifty, the ultimate predator in the box, doing it all with a certain swagger.

But don't forget the talent that surrounds him. Miguel Almíron is a striker's dream, an unselfish dynamic playmaker fueled by the success of others. "Tata" Martino is the most experienced foreign coach in MLS, one whose attacking style of play provides Martinez with bountiful opportunities.

Based on his productivity, Martinez ranks among the top strikers to ever play in this league. He has more goals than Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and David Villa did in their first 25 games. That doesn’t make him more talented, but it does make him more efficient with his time. 

Martinez’s sole purpose is to finish, to be on the end of crosses, through balls and rebounds in the box. Those other greats each shouldered more responsibility within their team, by creating chances and space for other teammates to succeed.

Keane made countless decoy runs, Henry contributed heavily to the developmental success of Bradley Wright-Phillips, and David Villa dictates NYCFC’s play in the final third. If Martinez can begin to provide and create for his teammates, becoming more active and involved in the build-up play, there's a next level for him to unlock.

The ideal striker is someone who can do it all. Someone who has the pace to run by defenders, shoot from outside, has the killer instinct, a powerful strike and creates for others as well as for himself. But at the end of the day the striker is graded on his production, his goals. Goals get all the glory. And in Josef Martinez’s case this rings true. Again and again. 24 times and counting.

He has the tools to set the single-season scoring record (currently at 27 goals). Health and help from his teammates will get him there.

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