MARIETTA, Ga. — Who would’ve predicted two years ago that in 2018, among global superstars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney vying for MLS MVP consideration, a leading candidate would be a quiet, 5-foot-6 Venezuelan striker in Atlanta named Josef Martinez?
Despite his compact stature and relative lack of name recognition upon arrival in the league, Martinez’s resumé ranks among the best in MLS this year. He’s set a new benchmark for goals scored in a season, surpassing a record that had stood since the league’s debut in 1996.
Martinez became the league’s all-time goalscoring king back in August, when he scored his 28th goal of the campaign, something that’s now looking like both a blessing and a curse.
The blessing is obvious: He’s set a new bar for everyone in the future to try to eclipse. The curse is that in an age of hypersonic news cycles, Martinez’s remarkable achievement stands out less in October, when national MLS awards voting takes place.
He currently finds himself suffering the driest spell of his MLS career to date, having not scored in his last four matches. But one of Martinez’s most frequent sources of assists this season, Julian Gressel, says the MVP prize should go to the player with the best yearlong body of work.
“Thirty goals and a whole lot of production offensively for us – he’s just been so good all year, even though he hasn’t really scored lately,” Gressel told reporters Friday. “But I don’t think that should impact any voting, and in that sense he’s the clear MVP in my book.”
Atlanta United and their manager, "Tata" Martino, hope Martinez can give MLS award voters at least one more reason to write his name down on Sunday, when the Five Stripes travel to BMO Field to take on Toronto FC on Decision Day presented by AT&T (4:30 pm ET | TSN4 – full TV and streaming info).
“The reason I think he's MVP is because everybody knows what he's going to do. He's going to get in the box and try to get on the end of a cross or a loose ball,” ATLUTD Homegrown Andrew Carleton told media this week. “He's broken the MLS goal record when it's his one job that everyone is trying to stop.”
No one has put the ball in the back of the net more frequently than Martinez, and he hardly relies on a common characteristic to help him score. In his two years in MLS, he’s scored 14 goals with his right foot and 14 with his left. And the Venezuelan leads MLS in headed goals this season with 10, the single largest source of his scoring output. Those numbers point to his consistency, determination and athleticism.
"He's a complete forward. He can take you one-on-one, he can finish in the air,” defender Franco Escobar said through a translator Thursday. “He's a good finisher, and if you give him even two centimeters of space, he's going to punish you. Going up against him in training every day, he's very difficult to play against. If you give him any space, he'll get a shot off. He's the top goalscorer of the league and I think he should win the [MVP] award easily."