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Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez shows softer side during conference final

Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) takes a photo with fans after defeating the New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

ATLANTA — One of the most recognizable images in Major League Soccer this season has been the scowl of Josef Martinez.

Fans of the league have seen the Venezuelan striker’s mean mug often this season. Martinez rarely celebrates his goals. He doesn’t dance and he doesn’t do flips. Occasionally, Martinez will indulge teammate Miguel Almiron and the duo will perform their choreographed fusion routine from the anime show Dragon Ball Z.

When Martinez scores, he faces the fans and welcomes cheers, but he rarely smiles back. Scoring is business for the 25-year-old. Putting points on the board is his profession. And the 2018 MLS Golden Boot winner is pretty good at it, to say the least.

Atlanta United fans and media covering the team rarely get a glimpse at the softer side of Martinez.

Several times this season, Martinez has refused to speak to the media in the locker room after games, even in contests where he’s scored and the Five Stripes have won. In post-win team photos, everyone else is smiling, but Martinez keeps a stone face.

Jun 2, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) celebrates after scoring a hat trick on a penalty kick against the Philadelphia Union during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports)

But there have been a few signs recently that show maybe Martinez is getting a bit more comfortable in Atlanta, with the media and with being loved by fans. He recently penned a Players Tribune article expressing his affection for the city, the club, head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino and his teammates. It’s left some to think that Martinez may not go back to Europe this offseason. Maybe he’ll stay in MLS and continue to break records in Atlanta.

A statue might help with that — if you’re listening, Arthur Blank.

“I’m waiting for them to take the (Atlanta Falcons’ statue in front of Mercedes-Benz Stadium) down and put one of me,” Martinez said through a translator with a laugh.

Or — ahem, MLS — if there’s a trophy for setting the single-season scoring record, Martinez would like his name on it.

“Hopefully next time they’ll give me an award with my name on it,” Martinez said. “Because they gave me a trophy for the Golden Boot without my name on it.”

Martinez was all smiles after Atlanta beat the New York Red Bulls 3-0 Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was the first time in the Five Stripes’ short history that they bested their New Jersey foe, and it came at an important part of the season — the first leg of the Eastern Conference final.

In the 32nd minute, Martinez scored the match’s first goal. After poking a shot past Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles, Martinez clenched his fists, let out a scream and glowered as his teammates embraced him. It was Martinez’s 34th score of the year, giving him the most goals in a single year in MLS history.

“It’s always sweet to score a goal,” Martinez said. “It doesn’t matter who it’s against — Red Bulls, New York City, Madrid, Barcelona. Scoring is my job. So, I’m happy that I scored tonight.”

Martinez has just six assists on the year to go along with his astronomical goal total. Typically greedy in the box and willing to do whatever it takes to score, Martinez did the opposite of what many expected when Julian Gressel fired a cross into the box in the 72nd minute. Martinez was in a giving mood and allowed a younger teammate to shine.

Instead of trying to stop on a dime to get a shot off, Martinez faked out two defenders with a dummy move and let the ball roll past him. It gave an unmarked Franco Escobar space for an open shot, which the defender connected on from about 16 yards out.

“I was a bit surprised that the ball got through to me, but I have to be there just in case,” Escobar said.

Martinez was subbed off in the 77th minute for Hector “Tito” Villalba. Atlanta had the game wrapped up with a two-goal lead at that moment, but the referee tacked on eight minutes of stoppage time. Instead of attempting to slow the game down to waste time and protect a victory, Villalba sped it up.

After getting a pass from Escobar, Villalba charged towards the Red Bulls’ goal and scored on a left-footed shot from outside the penalty box.

If there was one person who was the happiest for Villalba — who hadn’t scored since Sept. 22 and battled injuries all year — it was Martinez. Cameras caught them hugging and smiling after the victory.

“I think it’s a big relief,” Martinez said. “I told him in the locker room, ‘That’s the Tito I know.’ And he gave us a really important goal.”

Martinez handed out laughs, hugs and opportunities for others Sunday, but he still had one more thing to give away.

He spotted his grandmother in the stands. She was crying, which made Martinez emotional. Despite her having a great impact on his life, he had never given her one of his game-worn jerseys. Before heading into the locker room, Martinez pulled off the jersey and handed it to his abuela, Andrea.

“I never experienced the affection like I have here. It’s very emotional for me when I see my grandmother cry,” Martinez said. “It makes me emotional, but my grandmother has always been there for me, so it’s really important to have her here.”

About Atlanta’s fans, who came together for a stadium-wide tifo on Sunday, he added: “We got to the stadium today, and we saw the papers in the stands and everything they had choreographed, and it was really special.”

Underneath the toughness Martinez displays on the soccer field is happiness. Behind that scowl is a smile.

If Martinez keeps scoring and Atlanta keeps winning, we just might see that side of the striker more often.




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