Reigning MLS scoring champs ready to crown "relentless," "lethal" Martinez

Steadily, efficiently, ruthlessly, Josef Martinez has closed in on the MLS single-season scoring record of 27 goals, and he could match or break the mark as early as Sunday, when his league-leading Atlanta United side welcome Columbus Crew SC to Mercedes-Benz Stadium (4 pm ET | TSN2 - TV & streaming info).

Some athletes in possession of iconic milestones like this one hope and pray that they stay in the same hallowed spot in the record books, occasionally even celebrating when would-be successors fall short.

Not this one.

“I think he’s going to end up smashing the record,” Chris Wondolowski told MLSsoccer.com of Martinez this week. “I would much rather have that than just maybe him win by one or two. Because then you’re thinking about the ones you missed. If he’s going to score 33, 34, I have no problem losing that one!

“It sounds so cliché, but I think records are made to be broken. I’m just proud that I get to have my name mentioned with some of these guys. It’s pretty cool to have that.”

Wondolowski is the co-holder of the current mark alongside Roy Lassiter, who set the bar with an incredible campaign for the regular-season champions Tampa Bay Mutiny in the league’s inaugural season in 1996, and the New York Red BullsBradley Wright-Phillips, who reached that historic territory in 2014.

All three are icons in their own particular way, with a range of finishing qualities, who attained their share of league history on trophy-chasing teams with loaded attacking corps. And all three have looked on in awe and respect as Martinez has exploded the parameters of what was thought possible in MLS.

“Martinez is on fire, he’s been on fire ever since he’s been in the league and he probably would’ve scored more if he hadn’t gotten hurt last year,” Lassiter told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday, speaking by phone from his second home of Costa Rica. “All records are made to be broken. It’s been good to have the record for so, so many years.

“Actually it’s a happy moment. I mean, my name still stays there amongst players that have been able to accomplish that feat,” Lassiter added when asked if he’s felt any sadness about his record falling. “I feel that the kid can do 30-plus goals, [way] more than 27. The team that he has, the coaching staff that he has … he could end up with much more goals than that.”

Wright-Phillips sounded a similar note when discussing the topic during All-Star Week in Atlanta.

“I know it sounds weird for an athlete, but I’m not too competitive,” said the Englishman, who marked his 100th career regular-season goal last month. “It doesn’t bother me. Records are there to be broken – and it also shows improvement. When I done it, when I got there, someone’s going to break it, someone’s going to break Josef Martinez’s [record]. That’s how it goes, that’s improvement.

“If he carries on how he is, then he’ll probably be one of the best there is. His goalscoring rate is crazy – crazy. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

A rangy, physical frontrunner with world-class speed that made him particularly unstoppable in open space, Lassiter feasted on the elegant service provided by the likes of Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama and Steve Ralston in year one – where, it’s worth noting, teams played 32 regular-season games compared to the 34 that the other three strikers had to work with. It was a 10-team league with a markedly different character to the sleek, worldly MLS of today.

“It’s a little bit more dynamic now. You have younger players on the field now,” said Lassiter, whose son Ariel plays for the LA Galaxy. “Before it was mainly older, experienced players on the field, a little bit more defensive-minded. But the methodology now is attacking and organized.

“Before it was bringing in older, recognized players throughout the world. Now you’re bringing in young players, while still bringing in the older players that have good names and can still play and bring a lot to organizations. I think it’s more of a mix now. … I see it being younger, a little bit more Hispanic.”

Wondo, meanwhile, made his mark as the elusive, deadly poacher for the 2012 Supporters’ Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes, a side known for its gleefully direct style and “Bash Brothers” duo up top, hulking targetmen Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart. With those two carving out space and winning headers as a fleet of pacey, tricky wide men rained down crosses, Wondolowski was free to ghost in and around the opposition’s penalty box to devastating effect.

Though some might consider Frank Yallop’s side a muscular anachronism, Wondolowski believes the 2012 Quakes would be right in the mix today, too.

“I know it’s very hypothetical, but I would say that we would be Supporters’ Shield contenders again,” he said. “Even though it was a predictable way [of playing], you knew if you could get the ball on the flank, beat some of their guys – we had Marvin Chavez and Simon Dawkins and then you had [fullbacks Steven] Beitashour and Justin Morrow, who could run the flanks all day and get crosses in, and then you had the three of us [up top] able to attack the ball. Defenses knew we were coming and they still weren’t able to stop us. It was fun in that sense.”

BWP, Lassiter and Wondo all point to the varied ways in which Martinez poses danger, whether it’s with his head or feet, via build-up play or rapid counterattacks. But one overriding trait impresses them the most.

“I love his passion, I love that he’s just relentless with it,” said Wondolowski. “He’s very smart with his runs and he’s able to find space even when it’s not [plentiful]. You see their buildup with the ball, you kind of wonder where he is, but he’s creating that space for that final third, that final attack. He knows where wants to be and where wants the ball to be, and he’s relentless with it. He’s able to score two, three times a game [because of] hundreds of runs that he makes throughout the game.”

Said Wright-Phillips: “He seems very hungry to score goals. A lot of strikers don’t have that – everyone thinks they do, but you can see on the pitch that when he gets on there he wants to score. He’s doing everything he can to score.”

Though the four strikers in question played in different eras, on distinctly different teams, there’s general consensus that a certain set of circumstances have to fall into place for such a scoring windfall to unfold.

“In one season, you’ve got to stay healthy, you’ve got to be on a good team – a good, dynamic team that understands and looks to get you the ball and believes in you,” said Lassiter, who currently works as a coach and technical director at Seattle-area youth club Washington Premier FC. “So many factors have to come into play to get that record.

“There’s no way he [Martinez] could do that on a team that’s at the bottom, not producing, not having productive wingers, not having good, dynamic midfielders with good vision, movement, that can see his runs.”

Notes Wondolowski: “With Miguel Almiron, it’s crazy to think that Josef Martinez could have 30 goals and may not even be the MVP on his team.”

The Quakes icon acknowledges that Atlanta’s aggressive philosophy is a factor in Martinez’s prolific scoring – yet warns that the Venezuelan’s contributions are more unique than they may appear.

“It’s been fun to watch – him AND Atlanta. They play a great style, entertaining, and across the board they’re dangerous,” said Wondolowski, who sits second on the league’s all-time career regular-season scoring list with 140 goals and is bearing down on Landon Donovan’s 145.

“I don’t think I could do what he [Martinez] has done, even with his team. He’s absolutely lethal with it. He’s the right player for the right style and they’re making the most of it. it’s not an easy thing and believe me, there’s defenses and players that are keyed on him. But he’s still able to find a way.”

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