What losing Josef Martinez means to Atlanta and Atlanta United supporters

Even with everyone leaving there was supposed to be Josef.

Atlanta United offloaded three fan favorites this offseason, including two members of the inaugural 2017 team in Julian Gressel and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. That’s in addition to the retirement of the club’s first captain, Michael Parkhurst.

With everyone leaving there kind of needed to be Josef.

For Atlanta fans, yesterday’s news that Josef Martinez had torn his ACL on the back end of their 2-1 Week 1 win over Nashville SC is nothing short of brutal. Atlanta United could have lost to Nashville 8-0 and then forced every person in red and black to sit in the post-match cold and watch the Nick DeLeon goal from last year’s Eastern Conference Final over and over Clockwork Orange-style while blasting Florida-Georgia Line and most fans would agree that scenario would not nearly have been as bad.

I’m not saying that all of the Atlanta United car flags you passed on I-24 heading out of Nashville Sunday morning seemed like they were at half-mast. That would be dramatic. I’m saying they would have been at half-mast if the news had broken in the morning and not at night when everyone had already arrived home.

Josef is a star in MLS. Anyone who follows MLS even casually will know Josef. The fact I’m repeatedly typing “Josef” and everyone understands and agrees that it’s OK to do so should be a decent indicator. Once you’ve reached one name status, you’ve reached a top-tier level of fame.

In Atlanta, there are only a handful of one-namers in the city’s history. Deion, Chipper, Nique, Julio and Josef. While he may not have had the longevity of those names yet, he’s in that tier for anyone who’s lived in and around Atlanta the last three years. That’s absurd for a player everyone assumed would play on the wing or be a backup to Kenwyne Jones. That is, if they knew who he was at all after Atlanta brought him over on loan.

Speaking of that loan, it’s kind of amazing that he wasn’t even supposed to stick around. But everyone in Atlanta realized pretty early that something had clicked for him in MLS. Josef put three past Minnesota United in the snow in the club’s second game and then returned home six days later to score a brace at Bobby Dodd Stadium against Chicago and I swear that one of them seemed like it came from behind the goal. Just an impossible angle. Like so many of his goals, it felt like he willed the ball into the net and it complied in an act of self-preservation. Atlanta made the loan permanent shortly after.

An MVP award, three trophies and 77 league goals later, Josef has his own mural in the city and may eventually have more. When he jokingly said before the 2018 MLS Cup that he was waiting for the people in charge to tear down the giant metal falcon (largest in the world!) outside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and replace it with a statue bearing his likeness, Atlanta fans quickly agreed that Josef made an excellent point about Josef and “Build the Statue” became a rallying cry that has slowly eeked more towards becoming a demand within the fan base.

In that same interview, Josef told the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “I’ve never experienced the affection like I have here.”

Josef Martinez signing autographs postgame at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta | Adam Hagy-USA Today Sports Images

The legend of Josef in Atlanta

Things haven’t always been perfect for Josef in Atlanta.

There was the time he got into a shouting match with a fan in the tunnel of MBS at halftime of a game. There have been times when his visible frustration has rubbed small portions of the fanbase the wrong way. And there was that time he almost set himself on fire when he jumped on a pyrotechnic box to celebrate a goal, which, OK fine, that really just made him seem more awesome. But the first two were legitimate talking points for a while. But over three years into Atlanta’s relationship with Josef, what initially seemed enigmatic has become simple to understand.

Josef cares more.

That’s it. That’s kind of the crux of all of it. He just cares more than everyone else around him. You can see it during games and then you hear about it from teammates who mention how losing a game of soccer tennis during training will bring out the same side of Josef you would see if he was being substituted in the 50th minute of MLS Cup.

When you couple that side of Josef with the side that forces the team to wait to enter the locker room while he signs autographs, takes pictures and — literally a few times — kisses babies after he steps off the team bus, you have an undeniable presence. Pile on top of that the changing hair colors, the videos of laughing at Orlando and an unrelenting desire to curse in interviews and you have someone who is the soul of the team and the fan base.

Nearly 800+ words in and I haven’t even been able to get to how massive his loss will be for Atlanta on the field. Clearly, Frank de Boer’s side now has the largest hole in MLS. De Boer said after the match in Nashville that the team would bring in a striker if Josef’s prognosis came with bad news. Whoever that might be, the drop from one of the league’s historic best to the next guy is going to be steep. Really, really, really steep.

A season without Josef feels unimaginable. And it wouldn’t be surprising if two months from now we find out Josef has healed his leg through sheer determination. But when you get past the mythos, things usually aren’t fair. And it doesn’t feel fair that we may not see him on the field again this season. And it doesn’t feel fair that he could care as much as he does only to be sidelined.

Even with everyone leaving, there was supposed to be Josef. A warm safety blanket of inevitable goals and expletives and celebrity and more expletives. But now the scheduled dates and times to appreciate him have all been taken away and there’s no way to know when we’ll see the absolute embodiment of a lack of compromise that is a fully-powered Josef Martinez again. And that’s just not fair.


EDITOR'S NOTE: J. Sam Jones is a soccer writer and columnist and regular contributor to DirtySouthSoccer.com. You can listen to him stumble through discussions about Atlanta United on the Dirty South Soccer podcast network and follow him @J_SamJones if you don’t mind occasional ALL CAPS YELLING about American Football and Pitchfork reviews.

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