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Who will step up for Atlanta United if Josef Martínez misses time with injury?

The Five Stripes have options, but replacing Martínez’s production and leadership would be a monumental task.

Sep 21, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) reacts after injuring his right leg in the second half against the San Jose Earthquakes at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)
Sep 21, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) reacts after injuring his right leg in the second half against the San Jose Earthquakes at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)

ATLANTA — Atlanta United won Saturday afternoon, but the joy of a 3-1 triumph over the San Jose Earthquakes was tempered by sobering doubt. Josef Martínez, he of the Major League Soccer single-season goals record, career hat tricks record, consecutive games with a goal record and 49 percent of Atlanta’s league goals in 2019, exited early due to injury. Martínez collided with a teammate and fell awkwardly, twisting his knee and ankle. He tried to play on, but could not, and was stretchered off to the locker room in the 79th minute.

Manager Frank de Boer did not know the severity immediately after the game, but he was not optimistic. “We know Josef,” de Boer said. “He’s a tough guy. He will not step suddenly off the field. So, he will have something, that’s for sure, but we have to wait.”

None of the players who spoke to reporters Saturday had any updates. “We have to wait” was the message of the day. Martínez is expected to undergo medical testing Sunday.

The mood in the locker room postgame was far from victorious. Most players had cleared out by the time media entered, which is typical after Atlanta’s home losses, but not its wins. 

Martínez averages nearly a goal per game in MLS play. He is the closest thing Atlanta has to an attacking guarantee. If the Venezuela international misses extended time, it will severely dent the Five Stripes’ chances of finishing atop MLS’ Eastern Conference and their hopes of lifting a second consecutive MLS Cup.

“Other players will have to step up at that moment,” de Boer said. “If he’s out for one or two games or more games, other players have to step up. That’s what are they training for, to step in, and I warn them every time, every moment: Be patient, your chance will come. But then, they have to be ready also. Don’t look at me at the moment when you are not ready, because that’s your call. Hopefully, other people will stand up, and I’m going to see which one will replace him if he is injured. Hopefully, I don’t have to think about it.”

Opportunity for Vazquez or Villalba

Should Atlanta’s worst fears come true, there are two clear options to lead the line: Brandon Vazquez and Héctor “Tito” Villalba.

Villalba has experience with the job. When Martínez sustained injuries that limited him to 20 games in 2017, Atlanta’s No. 15 filled in at center forward and performed admirably. Villalba scored 13 goals and provided 11 assists that season. His pace and direct dribbling style can give opposing center backs headaches.

But, Villalba has not reached his 2017 heights in the past two seasons. A combination of injuries and falling out of favor as a starting XI player has limited him to eight goals and 13 assists over 45 regular-season games in 2018 and 2019. (Villalba did score a vital goal in the first leg of Atlanta’s Eastern Conference final versus the New York Red Bulls last season.)

Vazquez has never been a regular starting XI player for Atlanta, but he has enjoyed somewhat of a breakthrough 2019 season. With Villalba hurt and Martínez away on international duty, the 20-year-old made his first five MLS starts this year. In 12 appearances across all competitions, he has produced six goals and one assist.

Vazquez entered Saturday’s game as a substitute and played well. In 25 minutes, he logged two shots (one on target) and completed all nine of his passes, including two key passes and the assist on Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez’s insurance goal in second-half stoppage time. The United States youth international is good with the ball at his feet, and standing 6-foot-3, he has the size to play as a target forward.

“Josef is a great player, very important for us. We know that, but he’s not the solution of Atlanta United,” Leandro González-Pírez said. “He scores a lot of goals for the club, but it’s also because of what the team generates and assist him. He’s an important piece, but if he’s not there, that doesn’t mean we can’t win.”

Nagbe drives Atlanta forward

Darlington Nagbe's chalkboard vs. San Jose.

Darlington Nagbe’s chalkboard vs. San Jose.

One player who stepped up Saturday was Darlington Nagbe. San Jose’s 10-v-10 man-marking system was tailor made for the Atlanta midfielder. Nagbe excels at evading tackles and advancing the ball on the dribble. Once he escaped his opponent Saturday, he was free to drive toward the Earthquakes’ back line. Nagbe took advantage of the opportunity.

“We had spoken about it,” he said after the win. “If you do negate your guy, try and drive with the ball, and then, force the other guy to step to you, which is what happened, and then, Emerson [Hyndman] was open and a great touch and finish from him.”

Nagbe was referring to Hyndman’s 90th-minute winner. The attacking move started when Nagbe won an individual duel near midfield and left Magnus Ericksson in his wake. He dribbled down the middle, and once center back Florian Jungwirth stepped up and intervene, Nagbe played a perfectly weighted pass to Hyndman in the vacated space. Hyndman stroked a good shot past Daniel Vega, and the celebratory train horn went off.

All told, the game was one of Nagbe’s best this season. He hit two shots on target, completed four of five dribbles, made six recoveries and misplaced just three of his 39 passes.  

“If you can get players, for example, Darlington Nagbe on the ball, and you can turn away from his opponent, you can almost run directly to the 18-yard box,” de Boer said. “So, yeah, that’s the advantage when you play against a team like that.”

Hyndman deserves credit for his influence on the game as well. He was quick to admit he could have been sharper in front of goal before scoring the winner, but he was involved in Atlanta’s opening and closing goals, pressuring the ball and creating turnovers that led to the chances.

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