ATLANTA — Josef Martinez, Atlanta United’s bonafide superstar who defines the aesthetic and character of the Five Stripes, came up short in the season’s biggest moment.
Unbeknownst to the public, the Venezuelan striker injured his hamstring at the worst possible time: two days prior to his team’s Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Final against Toronto FC. Head coach Frank de Boer said the injury was bad enough that Martinez removed himself from Monday’s training session and was a doubt to play in Wednesday’s match, which ended in a 2-1 loss for Atlanta, ending their season.
“It was a small injury, but of course it's always in the back of your mind when you make a full sprint, so he chose his moments,” De Boer said in his postmatch press conference. “Sometimes you saw that he wasn't the Josef that we want to see, but I think the second half you saw two or three times when he made his sprint, there was nothing really wrong so he gained more confidence in that moment.”
Martinez was clearly bothered throughout the match. He entered the game with a compression sleeve on his right hamstring, but angrily ripped it off and tossed it aside in the first half not long after failing to convert a penalty that would have extended Atlanta’s early lead to 2-0.
“We know how good he can take penalties and it's always rare that he misses,” said De Boer. “Who takes it can miss it, I always say. He took his responsibility. He did it a lot of times fantastic. Against [Club] América we won the [Campeones Cup]. I don't blame him for it because again, what I said, he gave us a lot last season and also this season.”
What was even worse for Atlanta United and De Boer was that Atlanta United defender Florentin Pogba was dealing with a similar injury, compounding the issues in defense with MLS Best XI defender Miles Robinson also out injured. De Boer said he knew it was a possibility that either player could be lost with a further aggravation of the hamstring injuries at any moment.
"That was the case, and Pogba had the same issue, but he could play also so we were a little bit doubtful at the start of this game to have two [players who] maybe after five minutes can drop out," he explained.
In the end, De Boer only used one substitution in the game, when in the 81st minute he inserted Tito Villalba for Michael Parkhurst, who dislocated his shoulder on the pitch at Mercedes-Benz Stadium just 12 days ago. Parkhurst recovered to return to the starting lineup against Toronto FC.
The Atlanta manager stood by his decisions on the night.
“We took the risk, and if I look back, I would make the decision again,” De Boer said. “You know Josef always is there when we needed him. I believed — and he also — that in the end that we could use him today.”