Venezuela appears to be an emerging soccer country, something that is particularly felt these days in MLS. At present, eight players ply their trade here, the biggest star among them Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez.
La Vinotinto are still looking to reach their first-ever World Cup, but improved performances the past decade in the Copa America and the generation of talent coming through may be ready to break through in the future. Of course, the likes of Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese, among others, helped pave the way for Venezuela's emergence as an improving country in the sport.
Ahead of Sunday's clash between Atlanta and the Timbers (4:30 pm ET | FOX — Full TV & streaming info), two of the leading lights of Venezuelan soccer will square off in MLS for the first time.
Admiration for a pioneer
MARIETTA, Ga. – Josef Martinez loves his country.
He's notably befriended a fellow countryman in Atlanta Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte, going to watch him play as often as he can. Martinez is also famous for spotting Atlanta United fans with Venezuelan flags and showing his appreciation for their support, a connection he feels deeply.
On Sunday, Martinez and the Five Stripes will play host to the Timbers, who are led by another Venezuelan, Giovanni Savarese, who has 30 Venezuelan national team caps along with 51 MLS league goals.
While Martinez says he doesn't have a relationship with the manager to speak of, he's certainly taken note of what Savarese is accomplishing in the Pacific Northwest.
"I know him from his time with Venezuela," Martinez said via translator at Atlanta's training ground Friday. "I think in Portland, as the coach, they didn't start off the season very well, but in the last nine games they've been playing really well and I think he deserves a lot of the credit."
Joining Atlanta from Italian side Torino last year, Martinez has headlined an explosion of Venezuelan talent in MLS on the field and – thanks to Savarese – on the touchline as well, with NYCFC's Yangel Herrera, Real Salt Lake's Jefferson Savarino and others also bursting onto the scene over the past 18 months.
Venezuela may have "golden generation" coming through their system — highlighted by the Under-20 national team finishing as runners-up in last year's FIFA U-20 World Cup — and Martinez is optimistic that those players might look to himself and others succeeding in MLS as models.
"Hopefully it's not just because of what I'm doing, but also what the other Venezuelan players in the league are doing,” he said. “I think it's good that [Venezuelans] are playing well here and think it can only help other Venezuelan players."
Paying tribute to the present
PORTLAND, ORE. -- Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese took time out of his weekly press conference to rave about his compatriot Josef Martinez.
Savarese named Martinez one of Venezuela's "most important players."
"I've known [Josef] for a long time," Savarese said before adding, with an eye on the future, "He can definitely translate his game to the World Cup."
"I think what makes him better, other than the talent, is how competitive he is," Savarese continued. "He's not satisfied with only scoring one goal. He's going to continue, he's going to battle."
For Savarese, Martinez's success in MLS was "no surprise" to him. "I knew when I was asked before he came into the league, I was asked if he would do well in MLS, and I had no doubt that he would do well."
Calling Martinez a "tough player to play against," Savarese relishes the challenge Martinez, the current MLS Golden Boot leader, will present for the Timbers defense which has limited star strikers Carlos Vela, David Villa, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to a solitary goal between them.
"Our team has battled with some good players in these past few matches," Savarese reflecting on the Timbers current 10-game winning streak across all competitions.
"We've done pretty well with some big players," Savarese continued before concluding he feels confident and "believes in [the Timbers] to rise up to the challenge Martinez will present on Sunday."