ATLANTA — Will Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez play for Atlanta United in 2020?
“Yes,” Atlanta vice president and technical director Carlos Bocanegra responded when asked that question in a media conference call Thursday.
The answer did not seem so clear a month ago. Martínez had a rough transition to Atlanta and Major League Soccer in 2019. A blockbuster move from River Plate in Martínez’s native Argentina was followed by a dreadful season-opening slump. El Pity did not register a goal or assist in until he scored against Orlando City in Atlanta’s 10th league game. Subbing off midway through the second half of a tepid 1-0 win over the Colorado Rapids in April, Martínez infamously boiled over on the bench. His penalty miss with the last kick of the ball cost Atlanta a point at Toronto FC June 26.
By mid-July, he was openly feuding with Frank de Boer in the press. After de Boer called Martínez’s substandard performance in a 2-1 win over the Montreal Impact “a danger to the team,” Martínez thoroughly criticized his manager on Argentine radio — one day before a rare, scheduled session with Atlanta media.
“I’m someone who always says what I want to say,” Martínez told reporters, articulating his disconnect with de Boer. “I think it is good to talk. It always helps, especially when it’s two intelligent people. Talking can only help — but not talking too constantly, because then you just get a lot in your head.”
Martínez improved over the second half of the season. He showed skill and desire in a match-winning performance against D.C. United. A hard shoulder challenge against New York City FC center back Maxime Chanot displayed surprising strength and toughness. Nevertheless, deep valleys remained. Exiting a 4-3 loss at Los Angeles FC Martínez again showed his displeasure with de Boer for all to see.
Despite the strides made, Martínez did not feature in Atlanta’s first MLS Cup playoff game against the New England Revolution Oct. 19.
“I choose the players who have the most chance to win this game,” de Boer said afterward. “That doesn’t mean that it is always with the best players, but with the best team. From my point of view, this was the best team to win.”
Throughout all of this, there was speculation spanning two continents whether the team, the player or both would be ready to go their separate ways at season’s end. The online rumor mill named every big team in Brazil as interested in Martínez’s services. Thursday, Bocanegra did not hem and haw. He needed one word to confirm Atlanta’s commitment to its No. 10.
Martínez contributed seven goals and nine assists in 44 appearances across all competitions in 2019. Those numbers are not bad, but they did not meet the high bar set by Martínez’s 2018 South American Footballer of the Year status and his exorbitant transfer fee. Still, there were glimpses of a player who has the potential to be MLS’ best, and encouragingly, Martínez was most consistent in Atlanta’s biggest games.
He scored two goals in U.S. Open Cup play, winners in a quarterfinal against Saint Louis FC and the final versus Minnesota United. In the Campeones Cup victory — which he guaranteed beforehand — Martínez bedeviled Club América defenders, drawing five fouls and put one of two shots on target.
Martínez was at his best during the two playoff games in which he did play. He provided two assists and drew a penalty against the Philadelphia Union and Toronto, neither of which could contain his dribbles.
“I think if he continues how he played in the last two games — and I game him a compliment, that’s the Pity I want to see; he’s involved in defending and attacking. If he shows that, there is no doubt that he is going to have a major impact in MLS,” de Boer said Thursday.
Martínez should go into 2020 as a different player. While his performances improved throughout 2019, the 26-year-old’s body language showed he was becoming more comfortable in his new surroundings and with his new teammates.
After that dismal first-half against Colorado in April, Martínez and Julian Gressel exited the field engaged in heated conversation. When the two connected for the opening goal in what would ultimately be an Eastern Conference final loss to Toronto, their celebration and embrace demonstrated a connection that had previously been missing.
If Martínez does indeed continue how he played in the past two games, he will be at the center of a fearsome Atlanta attack. Josef Martínez will be back. Bocanegra confirmed Thursday Ezequiel Barco will return too. There is a Darlington Nagbe-sized void in midfield that must be filled, but if Atlanta’s brain trust can figure that out, this is a team that has the talent to compete for everything in 2020, including a Concacaf Champions League title.
It was never going to be easy for Martínez in 2019. His accomplishments in Argentina set unrealistic expectations for a player that would need time to adjust. Being perceived as the de facto replacement for Miguel Almirón, whose smile and engine never faltered, did not make matters any easier. Martínez is a different type of player and he is more steely eyed than happy go lucky. It did not take long for local fans to make the comparison and turn on their new South American. Local reporters too were quick to sharpen their knives.
In May, when he was still struggling to adapt to life in America, El Pity spoke about his difficult start and the high bar he was attempting to clear.
“I train and play to get better every day,” Martínez said. “You guys have to stay calm. Things are going to work out. For me and the team, we didn’t have a great start. Maybe you guys are expecting a player that I’m not, so you have to lower the noise and try to remain calm.
“It’s difficult to turn around after a team has won a championship. Soccer is very difficult. You’re not always going to win a title every year. It’s very difficult. The guys deserve a lot of credit for what they achieved last year and we have to take it with a sense of calmness because Atlanta is a great team and a young club, but you’re not going to win every year.”
Those comments were prescient. Martínez got better, and Atlanta found that it will not win MLS Cup every year. A player with 11 trophies in his career and a team that is trying to redefine MLS’ ceiling will not be happy to miss out on the league title for a second consecutive season.
Martínez arrived in January, but perhaps he did not really introduce himself until October. If that is this case, he will be a player worth watching in the new year. He would not be Atlanta’s first high-profile Argentine to impress after a disappointing debut campaign.
When Barco arrived ahead of the 2018 season, his young age was ignored, and he was expected to immediately become an MVP-caliber player in MLS. He was not ready. Opponents figured out his predictable attacking moves, rendering the former Independiente star ineffective. An off-field transgression and subsequent suspension left the locals ready for Atlanta to cut its losses and move on. Instead, Barco came back in 2019 and, even though his season was broken up by injuries and international duty, he showed why he commanded an MLS-record price tag.
Martínez and Barco are not the same — those looking for an Almirón replacement will find a closer resemblance in the latter. And their first-season struggles were not the same. Barco betrayed Atlanta’s good will with an indiscretion shrouded in secrecy. Martínez lost support by challenging his manager in public view. But while Barco remained a non-factor in the Five Stripes’ MLS Cup run, Martínez was Atlanta’s best player in the postseason.
With an opportunity to start fresh — mentally, physically and metaphorically — Martínez should not be written off going into year two with Five Stripes.
“I’m looking forward to working with him again. I’m already very happy with how he ended the season,” de Boer said Thursday. “For him also everything was new, for me also. For players, you’re missing your country, you’re missing your family at the beginning. Hopefully now he understands everything, also about the referees and everything.
“I’m looking forward to seeing Pity again in 2020.”