It’s been a nightmare season for Atlanta United’s big offseason signing, Pity Martinez. He arrived as the South American Player of the Year and one of the two most expensive signings in league history, and now he’s struggling to make the starting lineup.
I was never purchased for $15 million. I never expected to get sold to major European teams. But I experienced a similar, albeit more low-key, situation in my own career. I signed in 2014 for a small Swedish team as their big preseason signing. I arrived with big expectations and huge aspirations. And I felt the harsh feeling of watching those hopes turn into a disaster.
I won’t claim to know exactly how Martinez is feeling right now. We all live our experiences in our own way. I can relate to Pity’s situation, though. Watching his body language on the field has felt like I stepped into a time machine and looked in the mirror.
It’s my job to try to make sense of what we see on the field. Here are some insights from my own experiences in Sweden in hopes they shed some light into what it’s like to move teams, countries, languages, and lives in search of something new.
Shake. Smile. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Shake. Smile. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Repeat. Five times. Ten times. Thirty times. Coaches. Teammates. Owners. Security.
Going into a new team is an incredibly vulnerable experience. You’re trying to prove your value as a player and validate your price tag, but you’re also trying to settle as a human. You’re a professional player with goals to score and games to win, and you’re also a person hoping to make friends. You’re trying to find your place in this culture and ecosystem that’s already been set.
As we have all experienced, no two sets of people, two rooms, two environments are the same. You can’t be the exact same person everywhere you go — well, maybe some people can. Most of us can’t. We have to read the room and always be vigilant and try to figure out what jokes to laugh at and what responses to offer.
In my situation, all of those jokes occurred in a different language. Most of my teammates could only interact with me in their second language. It added another layer to every conversation. It’s nearly impossible for a person to be completely normal in a second language — the tiniest details and inflections and facial expressions get lost (as someone who speaks poor Spanish, I have experience on both sides here).
You’re constantly living as if you’re meeting your significant other's parents for the first time. You can never stop thinking about the possibility of saying that one wrong thing.
You are, in effect, a different person than you were last year. All of those chemical reactions in your brain taking place at your last team when you were on the top of the world are different now. You’re a new person trying to make sense of this new world.
At the same time, you still need to perform. You simultaneously need to make yourself vulnerable to your teammates and take the field like you’re a king. Some people do it better than others — Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron are prime examples. But I found that balance to be extremely difficult. In the moments I would usually yell on the field, for example, I found myself backing off because I didn’t want to come too hard at new friends.
Then the ball starts to roll downhill. You don’t like yourself for playing poorly, so you don’t want to make yourself vulnerable anymore. You retract for survival.
The new environment changed who I was as a player. I found it impossible to translate my changing identity off the field to the player I used to be on the field. And as I struggled on the field, I resented that I tried to change off of it. I went from opening myself to closing off as quickly as possible. Once I started to close off, I never had a chance to recover. You can’t play soccer scared.
To provide some larger soccer critique, I think Atlanta coach Frank de Boer’s misplay has been being critical of Pity’s performances. Sometimes you need to push a player, and sometimes you need to put your arm around a player. I personally needed someone to put their arm around me; I suspect Pity has needed the same. The quality is still there, he just needs to feel comfortable in his own skin again.
The Argentine will get another chance Saturday with the LA Galaxy visiting Mercedes-Benz Stadium (5 pm ET | FOX in US; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada).