On Sunday evening, before Week 1 of the 2020 Major League Soccer season had even wrapped up and less than 24 hours after an opening day win over Nashville SC, Atlanta United's worst fears were confirmed when it was revealed Josef Martinez had suffered a torn ACL.
Martinez went down in agony under the Nashville winter sky, clutching his knee in the 63rd minute. While he briefly tried to soldier on, he eventually left the stadium in an air cast.
The club won't know for sure how long Martinez is out until he has surgery, which cannot happen until the swelling in his knee goes down. A date has not been set. But it's already clear that it's going to be a long time with Martinez on the sidelines. The only question is whether his season is over mere minutes after it got started.
There is much for Atlanta to ponder in the coming days and weeks. With this season's new roster rules and regulations, there's three main options for the club to consider.
Season-ending injury list
Though it would come with the thudding finality that we won't get to see the superstar play until 2021, Atlanta could place Martinez on the season-ending injury list. Such a move would render him ineligible across all competitions for the remainder of the year, but they'd get some roster relief.
Atlanta wouldn't get his Designated Player slot back, but, as Martinez makes more than $100,000 this season, they would be eligible to receive another senior roster spot to sign a replacement player. The replacement player can be signed for up to $250,000 this season, which would be an exemption on top of the salary cap.
The 2018 MLS Cup winners would not be able to use allocation money to buy down that figure, meaning they couldn't acquire a player on more than $250,000 if they are designated as an injury-replacement. Theoretically, they could clear another senior roster spot to sign a more expensive player, should they have the budget (and/or allocation money) to do so.
Atlanta United have until the end of the Primary Transfer Window (May 5) to decide to place Martinez on the season-ending injury list and sign a replacement. Clubs can only sign one replacement player per season.
Placing Martinez on the injured list would crack the door open for a late-season return while still offering some limited roster relief. The move would make him ineligible for a minimum of six MLS league games. During the time Martinez is out, the club would have an extra senior roster spot to use. If he returns, the club would lose that extra roster spot.
This move doesn't come with any additional budget help, but the club could spend whatever they could fit under the salary cap on that player.
Remember: Atlanta acquired a base of $750,000 Targeted Allocation Money plus an additional $350,000 in incentives from D.C. United for Julian Gressel, as well as $1.05 million in allocation from Columbus Crew SC for Darlington Nagbe. They also received a transfer fee for Tito Villalba, up to $1 million of which can be converted into General Allocation Money.
Wait and see
Atlanta, of course, may get a silver lining after surgery. Maybe there's a chance he returns at any point between now and MLS Cup in eight months. If that's the case, they wouldn't use the season-ending injury list and maybe they look to avoid a headache down the line of having to cut someone, if they opted to put him on the injured list and sign a replacement.
They wouldn't get any cap relief from the league, nor an extra roster slot, but they are in a good spot by way of flexibility for the season. They have 23 total roster spots taken, suggesting wiggle room on the senior spots (of which clubs can use 20.)
As written above, the club ostensibly have some allocation money to use should a more expensive option be in the club's plans.