ATLANTA — Left for dead by local media, Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez showed Thursday why Atlanta United spent a reported $15 million on the former River Plate star in January. Martínez has been wildly inconsistent for Atlanta in 2019, but in his best moments, he has shown attacking qualities unmatched by anyone else on the team. These moments often have come in the Five Stripes’ biggest games.
In Atlanta’s 2-0 Eastern Conference semifinal victory over the Philadelphia Union, Martínez was man of the match. He did not score, but he did everything else: four chances created, 12 of 16 duels won, 37 of 44 passes completed and the game-winning assist.
Martínez came to Atlanta as the South American footballer of the year and Copa Libertadores champion. Despite showing brilliance with his passing vision and dribbling ability, his discipline and work rate have often come into question. During an inconsistent 2019 Major League Soccer regular season, Martínez put in too many performances marred by poor turnovers in midfield and a lack of a defensive engine — remember when de Boer called the player “a danger to the team“?
But Martínez also came to Atlanta with a reputation as a big-game player, and he has consistently lived up to that billing. He scored two game-winning goals in U.S. Open Cup play, including the final, and was excellent against Club América in the Campeones Cup.
After sitting on the bench in Atlanta’s win over the New England Revolution in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs, Martínez showed once again Thursday that when the spotlight shines brightest, he is at his best. El Pity executed de Boer’s tactical instructions to perfection, holding up possession in the attacking third before playing the key pass forward. When Philadelphia regained possession, Martínez pressed Haris Medunjanin to make sure the holding midfielder would not be able to start transition moments with easy distribution forward.
“Defensively, we did a great job, we were very disciplined with Pity and [Ezequiel] Barco,” de Boer said after the win. “Especially for them, it’s different than they aren’t normally used to, and I think they did really well.
“[Martínez] had to play between the lines, not to go too high. When we had the ball, try to receive the ball between lines where he can turn on guys like Medunjanin. He isn’t a great defender, so if we can search for [Ezequiel] Barco and Pity in those areas, then they come into their strength. Then we have to have runners, with Josef [Martínez] and Julian [Gressel], and the first goal was a little like that.”
Now, going into the Eastern Conference final against Toronto FC, de Boer has a decision to make. He likes the stability Emerson Hyndman brings to midfield, but if Martínez is at such a high level, he should be a lock for the starting XI.
“I’m going to be here when the coach needs me,” Martínez said Thursday. “I’m 100 percent ready to play, after that it’s the coach’s decision if I play or not. Today, I showed that I’m still playing well.”
Atlanta does it ‘with the whole roster’
Three clean sheets have been recorded through 10 MLS Cup playoff games this postseason. Atlanta has two of them. Somehow, the Five Stripes have put on this defensive clinic without their best defender and, Thursday night, their most experienced defender.
With Miles Robinson out, the soon-to-retire Michael Parkhurst returned to the starting lineup in Atlanta’s 1-0 win over New England last Saturday. The captain suffered a dislocated shoulder in second-half stoppage time, so de Boer was forced to shuffle his backline again versus the Union. And with the way Philadelphia plays, he wanted to line his team up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. No bother, the manager called on Mikey Ambrose, who had not played with the first team since July, and Florentin Pogba, who had not started as a center back in a back-four since May.
Justin Meram has performed admirably as a wingback, but the true winger would not be a good fit at fullback. With depth at left back depleted, Ambrose showed his manager he could be trusted in a do-or-die game.
“Yeah, it was a risk,” de Boer admitted Thursday. “If I wanted to play with Barco and Pity, especially in this system, I need a defender. I can’t put Justin at left back, because it’s almost suicide. Because we don’t have defenders left, Mikey was the only option. He has done well [with Atlanta United 2] in the USL, and that’s good that he played the games in the USL. We gave him his minutes, and that’s why I had no doubt [about his match fitness] tonight. In training, he’s always giving 100 percent.
“That’s always the message I give to our players. Your time can suddenly come. If you show me in training that you give your best, and you show quality, then for me, it’s a possibility that I put you in. He gave me that opportunity. That’s why I could put Mikey in. I could have played Pogba at left back and dropped Jeff [Larentowicz] to the back, but for me, Jeff is crucial right now in midfield. He is winning those duels for us. That gives you so much more release for the defense. That’s why I had no doubts to play Mikey tonight, because I have seen it in training, and he was playing well as a fullback. After five minutes I already knew, OK, Philadelphia plays like this, Mikey’s going to start.”
Atlanta has relied on depth all over the field this season. The Five Stripes won two trophies and finished as the Eastern Conference’s second-best team even when dealing with injuries, fixture congestion and designated player absences. De Boer has preached the necessity of quality throughout his entire squad all year.
“We’re not going to do it with 11, we’re not going to do it with 12 or 13,” the manager said after a training session this week. “No, we’ll do it with the whole roster.”
A different team in knockout games
Atlanta had an up-and-down regular season, and even with a victory on the final day, the Five Stripes struggled down the stretch. De Boer’s team looked worn out at times.
Now that it is in tournament play, Atlanta is back at its top level.
“I wish we could [play for trophies every day], because then it would be a little different, because I do think that there’s times when we do take a break as a team during the season,” Larentowicz said Thursday. “It’s the mentality, it’s the champions mentality that a lot of these guys have that come from other places and I think the guys that have been around this league know what it takes and try and pull it all together.”
The Five Stripes are 90 minutes at Mercedes-Benz Stadium away from another MLS Cup final appearance. Toronto FC will pose a challenge in the Eastern Conference final, but considering its track record in knockout games, there is no reason to doubt Atlanta’s mentality.
“The mentality in these games is to win,” Josef Martínez said. “You don’t know how. You can’t think too much. You just have to win. As I said last time, we didn’t play our best and won. Today, we played better and won. We’re not the best every day, but today, we can say that we did well, and we can think about Toronto.
“We played the correct game tonight. The formation doesn’t matter. Every player had the mentality and knew what we had to do: Win. Winning is the only mentality.”