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Pity Martínez shows desire and skill in game-winning performance for Atlanta United

The Five Stripes needed someone to step up against D.C. United. Pity Martínez stepped up.

Jul 21, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United midfielder Gonzalo Martinez (10) celebrates after a goal against D.C. United in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)
Jul 21, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United midfielder Gonzalo Martinez (10) celebrates after a goal against D.C. United in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

ATLANTA — Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez scored the biggest goal of his short Atlanta United career, netting the winner in the 89th minute of Atlanta’s 2-0 victory over D.C. United. But to take El Pity’s word for it, the last-gasp header was no big deal.

“For me, not much, but a lot for the team,” Martínez said through an interpreter when asked what the goal meant. “This is a group, and we all win and want to move forward and be strong here at home, so, it was a group win.”

The statement held the same tone as Martínez’s reaction to his first Atlanta goal. “I’m coming from a big club in South America, zero pressure,” he said following a 1-0 win over Orlando City on May 12. “I’m used to it. I knew the goal was going to come at some point.”

Martínez’s actions betray his words. His celebration after the strike against Orlando, in his ninth Major League Soccer game for the Five Stripes, was that of a player experiencing a pressure release.

If Sunday’s goal truly did not mean much, it is hard to imagine Martínez would have scored. Charging into the six-yard box and leaping into the air comes with no small risk of bodily harm. This was not the sort of skillful golazo seen on Martínez’s numerous highlight reels. It was pure desire, resembling a goal that might be scored by El Pity’s teammate Josef Martínez, a player who literally is willing to break bones in his face to score for his team.

“He put his body on the line, probably took a little knock or whatnot, but it doesn’t matter when you score a goal,” Brad Guzan said. “It takes some of the pain away.”

Three minutes after pushing the Five Stripes in front, Pity Martínez showed the quality everyone expects from the 2018 South American Footballer of the Year. With D.C. looking for an equalizer and playing with a higher defensive line, the Argentine won a duel against center back Donovan Pines. In one fluid motion, he turned and chipped a perfect pass over Frédéric Brillant and Júnior Moreno and into the path of Josef Martínez, who atoned for an earlier penalty miss and secured the three points for Atlanta.

“How good is that?” Taylor Twellman asked viewers on ESPN’s broadcast of the game. “A quick touch recognizing that the high line from D.C. United was pushed up. And in the blink of an eye: one goal, one assist, and you’ve changed the game. That is why you spend big money for big players.

“Pity Martinez, what a perfect dink for that man. … Frank de Boer is going to be quite pleased, because Pity Martínez took the game by the scruff of the neck and said, ‘I’m going to win this for the black and red here in Atlanta.”

De Boer indeed was pleased. The manager has not hesitated to criticize Pity Martínez’s performances as the Argentine has struggled this season. On Sunday, de Boer offered nothing but praise for Atlanta’s $15 million signing, who entered as a substitute in the 65th minute.   

“He was aggressive. He was sharp and fantastic in what he showed today,” the manager said in his postgame press conference. “So it gives him confidence, but it gives everybody confidence. This is what we want to see from everybody, of course.”

Expect to see more 3-5-2

In two games last week, de Boer shifted from his standard 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2. The move came because of a rash of injuries at the fullback position, but it may prove to be a happy accident. Atlanta has looked far more competent attacking in the system, which was regularly used in 2018 by then-manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino.

After the D.C. win, De Boer did not commit to a permanent change, but reading between the lines, it seems as though the 3-5-2 will be the default going forward in 2019.

“I always consider the opponent,” he told reporters. “I always have respect for the opponent, but, you have to have confidence in your players and your own system. In this system, everybody is suited well and feels comfortable. There is no reason for me to change at that moment. We can always look at it.”

The formation certainly makes the best use of Julian Gressel, who is not comfortable in central midfield but thrives as a right wingback. The left flank is a question mark, but de Boer has options. Justin Meram started Sunday and exited for Dion Pereira in the 83rd minute.

“I told Justin yesterday, that he has to understand the responsibilities of that position, de Boer said. “I think he deserved to start, because he has played three good games and made a difference. Dion is also an attacking player, but showed in this system that he did the defensive duties as well.”

Gressel succinctly summed up Atlanta’s new — but familiar — set-up. 

“It looks good,” Gressel said. “Today, we played 11-versus-11, had 70-plus percent possession, and created a ton of chances. So like I said on Wednesday, I think it is something the coaching staff will look at, and we will have a big matchup coming up on Friday [at Supporters’ Shield leader Los Angeles FC].

Gressel is Atlanta’s assist king

Gressel picked up a secondary assist on Pity Martínez’s goal. It was the German-American’s 29th helper in regular-season play. Gressel now is Atlanta’s all-time assists leader, surpassing Miguel Almirón.

“It just means that we score goals, and that is obviously encouraging,” Gressel said of the record. “It is something that obviously makes me proud a little bit. It took me a little longer than Miggy, but similar to the 100 appearances, coming in as a draft pick and contributing right away, I am just proud of it and hope to continue it. There is always that next one, and hopefully, we can get that sooner rather than later.” 

Gressel set the assists mark in his 101st appearance for Atlanta. He also is the club’s leader in games played. 

“He has that energy, that motor in him that he always can go on the sidelines and make those runs,” de Boer said. “What his quality is, he is always looking for that man who is free on the first post or the second post. His first control is always quite look, and he can then have a look up and make his choices. 

“He’s always looking for that free man in front of the goal. It’s nice to have a guy who can make a difference in that kind of aspect of the game.”

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