Warshaw: Here's how Atlanta United can replace Josef Martinez

Josef Martinez is irreplaceable. Let’s say that off the top. You could pick any one of his traits — as a player, as a leader, as a personality on the field — and you couldn’t replace a single one of them. All together, no chance.

The Venezuelan went down with an injury in Atlanta United’s 3-1 win over San Jose on Saturday. We don’t know the exact timeline, but it seems like he will miss at least the rest of the regular season. Frank de Boer has a big task on his hands.

With that said, just because you can’t replace an individual doesn’t mean you can’t use the collective to make up for the absence. A team with Pity Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, Tito Villalba, Darlington Nagbe, Justin Meram, Emerson Hyndman and Julian Gressel in the attack would, and should, be considered a favorite for MLS Cup. Losing Josef is a nightmare but it shouldn’t mean lights out.

Now, here’s the third part: Josef isn’t the only one on the mend. Ezequiel Barco has missed the last four games, and reportedly won’t suit up for Wednesday’s top-of-the-east matchup with New York City FC (7 pm ET | TV & streaming info). Villalba hasn’t started since May, and recently acknowledged that he still doesn’t feel 100%. In a vacuum, Atlanta could cope without Josef. In the current situation, it gets even messier.

The simple solution in the short term would be to start Brandon Vazquez in Josef’s spot and keep everything the same. De Boer seems to trust Vazquez and has played him in some big moments.

It’s also fair to ask, however, if Vazquez is up to leading the line for a team hoping to win MLS Cup. If you don’t think Vazquez can do the job, then you need to get more creative.

The next option would be to give Villalba the start up front. There are cons:

  • Villalba hasn’t played striker yet this year
  • It’s risky to put more minutes on Villalba’s body 
  • His direct style doesn’t make it a like-for-like tactical swap for de Boer

...but the pro is clear: Villalba is an incredibly dangerous attacker. The MO for Atlanta in the second half of the year has been to give the attackers freedom to figure it out; this would fit into that category.

The weirder option (you knew this was coming) would be to move Pity Martinez to center striker. If we think about the traits De Boer wants from that position -- dropping into the midfield, pulling defenders out, connecting with teammates driving forward -- Pity fits the mold.

To add to it, Atlanta’s main problems in the attack this year have come from a lack of directness. As Josef has dropped back to fulfill his role in De Boer’s setup, nobody has stretched the defense. Josef, Pity, Barco, Hyndman and Nagbe all check short to receive the ball; it allows the opposition to squeeze the game and take away their space. Atlanta’s two best performances of the year, in Campeones Cup and the U.S. Open Cup final, were largely because Barco and Pity took the space beyond Josef. Moving Josef to center striker and playing a more direct player (Villalba) behind him would naturally solve that problem.

Here’s the last wrinkle to consider: How do you replace Josef’s leadership? Josef sets the emotional tone for the team and holds everyone else accountable. He sets a high bar and forces everyone to meet it. How do you make up for that? And does it mean they need to get club captain Michael Parkhurst back into the team?

Parkhurst, who announced Monday that this season will be his last as a professional, has been a healthy scratch from the lineup since early July. De Boer could reinsert the veteran, move Franco Escobar to right wingback, and slot Gressel into center midfield, where he played in the 2018 championship run. It’s not ideal to move that many pieces around, but it’s also a fact that you need personality and leaders in big playoff games. Parkhurst provides both.

Here’s the positive spin for the Five Stripes… the team faced something similar in 2018. Remember that Miguel Almiron went down with two-and-a-half games left in the regular season? It hurt the team's Supporters’ Shield hopes, but Almiron returned re-energized. Getting a few weeks off, as long as the injury fully recovers, can be a good thing. Nobody wants to face a fresh, hungry Josef in that first-round playoff game.

In the meantime, there’s no easy way to replace the 2018 MLS MVP. But this needs to be said: Atlanta have enough talent, even without the holder of the MLS single-season scoring record, to compete for MLS Cup. This is why they went out and got Frank de Boer. He has solutions in front of him, he just needs to figure them out. It’s been a bumpy transition for the Dutch manager. This is his chance to earn the endearment of the Five Stripes community. 

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