ATLANTA – By now, most MLS observers are quite familiar with the Josef Martinez that wears red and black stripes and prowls MLS penalty boxes to such devastating effect.
The fierce scowl, the menacing swagger, the constant running and working to create and finish chances, the furious reactions to seemingly anything short of a perfect scoring move for Atlanta United: The complete package suggests an unquenchable thirst for goals, a caged fury barely kept beneath the surface.
At Wednesday’s Landon Donovan MLS MVP presentation, however, we were treated to a glimpse of a very different Josef.
First the Venezuelan turned heads when he strode to the podium at Arthur Blank’s business headquarters and began addressing a packed press conference in English, bravely trying out his new language skills in a setting he never had before.
“I feel so nervous,” said Martinez with a shy smile before switching to his native Spanish. “I am more nervous than when I take a penalty!”
The Venezuelan acquitted himself honorably, save for a few fleeting moments that tested his composure as he grew visibly emotional.
So exactly what got one of MLS’s most intense players so verklempt?
“I have a lot to say, I have a lot of emotions,” Martinez told journalists afterwards. “I’m not someone who cries easily but when I see my grandmother, sometimes I cry.”
Earlier this year the striker shared a moving account of his childhood in the Venezuelan industrial city of Valencia – sometimes dubbed “the little Detroit” – on the Players’ Tribune. And on Wednesday, with his family seated in the front rows, the magnitude of the occasion and perhaps more specifically, the incredible journey he’s taken to reach this milestone, finally hit home.
“My family and the people close to me, they’ve been with me the whole time,” he said, “in the good times and the bad, in Switzerland and Italy, they’ve always been with me, and to see them today on such an emotional day, it really means a lot to me.
“Sometimes I’m like an onion in that what I show on the outside is different than what’s on the inside,” he later added. “On the field I’m a different person than I am off.”
Strutting, screaming, glowering demon on the pitch, devoted family man, bearer of the hopes and dreams of millions both in Atlanta and back home in Venezuela off it: This is the dualism of Josef Martinez, as those who know him are quick to explain.
“A lot of people see the anger, and a feisty guy on the field,” ATLUTD technical director Carlos Bocanegra told MLSsoccer.com. “But at the training ground he’s hilarious – he’s always joking around and messing around with the guys. He’s a really big personality and smiling and messing with people.”
ATLUTD president Darren Eales shared a striking anecdote from Atlanta’s recruitment of Martinez: Seeking firsthand observations, Eales had reached out to former English national team goalkeeper Joe Hart, who played with Josef at Italian side Torino in 2016-17.
“Martinez is a really good guy. Big, friendly personality on and off the pitch,” Hart texted Eales. “Dangerous player with energy and heads the ball well for a small guy. He would be a great signing.”
Deadpanned Eales: “So I think I can say Joe, on behalf of all of Atlanta, next time I see you, you deserve a drink, because that was a great summary of what Josef brings to the table.”
Those traits have not merely fueled the greatest single scoring season in MLS history, but also shaped the very identity of the club from its birth. Deployed as the spearhead of an extremely talented attack, Martinez’s hunger, desire and clinical finishing has made the Five Stripes the entertaining, goal-happy side their founders envisioned from the start.
“For him to have scored 51 goals in  career starts for Atlanta United says everything about what we wanted to be: an exciting, dynamic, fun team to watch,” said Eales. “And that’s what you get with Josef every game. He’s incredible.
“He wears his heart on his sleeve, I think that’s the way I’d put it. And you see it about his hunger for goals. He might score four goals in a game and he’ll come off disappointed and throw his boots off in the dressing room because he missed a chance. That’s what Josef is, but I think that drive is part of his skillset that makes him successful.”
As he received MLS’s highest individual honor, Martinez emphasized how happy he is in Atlanta, and extolled the passion and support of his team’s fans. He even offered up a word of gratitude to his doubters – “I want to thank all those people for the extra motivation” – and when asked, sent a message of hope to the children back home in Venezuela, currently wracked by grinding poverty and instability.
“The kids in my neighborhood,” he said, “every time I go back there, they receive me with so much affection and they treat me like a king. So my advice to them would be to always follow your dream, even through adversity and difficult times, because sometimes in the most difficult times you can find the happiest moments.”