Warshaw: Unstoppable ability earned Josef Martinez the 2018 MLS MVP

This article was originally published before 2018 MLS Cup on Dec. 5, 2018. Martinez went on to lead Atlanta to a 2-0 win against the Portland Timbers as the Venezuelan scored the game-winning goal and earned MVP honors. On Wednesday he signed a five-year contract extension to stay with the club through 2023.


The striker takes two crossover steps to fade out of the defender’s sightline. As the ball takes flight, he starts to accelerate. He jumps before the defender — he always jumps first — to get the leverage. It might not matter, though; even when the defender gets up, he doesn’t get as high as Josef Martinez. The defender puts his arm up to fend off Martinez; Martinez doesn’t budge. The defender flicks his head toward the ball; Martinez drives his own head forward.

Goal.

It was but one of 34 this year, an MLS single-season record (playoffs included) that contains the first 30-goal regular-season in league history. He's up to 53 goals in 56 MLS starts.

And now he places the 2018 Landon Donovan MLS Most Valuable Player Award in the trophy case.

It’s been incredible to watch Josef this year. For nine months, if you couldn’t rely on anything else in your life, you could rely on a Josef Martinez goal.

There was nothing MLS teams could do to stop him.

Perhaps the best way to describe the Venezuelan’s dominance is that he can score against every type of defensive scheme he's faced. We generally think of forwards as suited to a specific type of match: He or she is either good on the counter or dangerous in the air, but rarely both; if the defense takes away his advantage, he isn’t as dangerous. Landon Donovan, for example, could annihilate teams with his pace, but could not do as much damage with a set defense in front of him. But not Josef. Open game? He blows by you. Sitting deep? He jumps over your defenders. Drop off him? He buries one from 20. We rarely see a player who is equally as dangerous in open space as playing against a parked bus.

To go with it, Martinez has the ideal demeanor for a striker. In the same way that attackers usually have a physical style, they also have a manner on the field. The manner is usually specific. To be able to play at the professional level, you need to be really good in at least one thing. You need to be particularly competitive or calm under pressure or aggressive or cerebral; most players go all in on one thing because that’s all they have the capacity to accomplish.  

The calm strikers make finishing in a crowd look easy, but infuriate their teammates when they don’t press hard enough or put their bodies on the line to win duels. The aggressive strikers do all of the dirty work we love to see, but then they lose their cool in front of goal. For the majority of players, it’s nearly impossible to be both incredibly aggressive and also serene, or tranquilo.  

But, once again, not Josef. He’s simultaneously the most aggressive player on any MLS field, and also the one able to make sense of the chaos. He provides the emotional leadership for his team, and can then bring his heart rate down in front of goal.

He’s a rare combination of contradictions. But it takes the uncommon to accomplish the incredible.

The Landon Donovan MVP trophy is undoubtedly deserved. Martinez maximizes every physical tool, and has the personality to match any moment. It’s not surprising that atop the Atlanta United offense, Martinez has been nearly impossible to stop.

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