ATLANTA — Fifteen minutes after Atlanta United and Orlando City SC kicked off Sunday afternoon, Leandro González-Pírez played a long, diagonal pass toward Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez. Martínez headed the ball down into the stride of Héctor “Tito” Villalba, who raced through the left channel toward the Orlando goal. Villalba reached the 18-yard box and cut a pass back to Martínez. He took a first-time, left-footed shot that flew past Brian Rowe into the goal. Atlanta 1, Orlando 0.
Eight games into his Atlanta United career, El Pity opened his goal-scoring account. The supporters at Mercedes-Benz Stadium bellowed, and so did that train horn. The flames and steam shot up from behind the goals. Two weeks after he was filmed melting down upon subbing out of Atlanta’s narrow win over the Colorado Rapids, Martínez ran to the corner flag, smiled, looked to the sky and waited for his teammates’ embrace. He celebrated by pretending to brush himself off.
First of many 😎
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) May 12, 2019
“I’m coming from a big club in South America, zero pressure,” a steely-eyed Martínez said through an interpreter after the game, when asked if his season-opening goal drought weighed heavily. “I’m used to it. I knew the goal was going to come at some point. Luckily it was able to come today, and hopefully we can keep this momentum going.”
In his postgame press conference, manager Frank de Boer acknowledged the goal, which turned out to be the difference in Atlanta’s 1-0 victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, was a pressure release.
“Of course, when you have that amount of money when you buy somebody, you know there is pressure, because people expect a lot of you,” de Boer said, referring to Martínez’s reported $15 million price tag. “And he feels it also, and he wants to show it, of course. It’s a relief, especially for him, because we always believed that [the goal] will come. Of course you want it as quick as possible, but you have to work hard for it, and he did, and now he’s feeling his reward.”
Martínez has existed under a white-hot spotlight since signing with Atlanta. He was the 2018 South American Footballer of the Year, as has been written in this space many times. It has taken time for the Argentina international to work his way to full fitness after a short offseason and to adapt to his new team, league and country. He has been been living in the United States without his wife and daughter, who are here now. All the while, Martinez has been trying to stay in good enough form to earn a spot with La Albiceleste at this summer’s Copa America.
Martínez’s early performances left much to be desired, but they have been steadily improving in recent games. Speaking on the difficult start in a rare media session last week, Martínez did not mention his past, only the present and future.
“I think I train and I play every day just to try and get better, so I think you guys have to remain calm,” he said. “You know, maybe what you guys are expecting of me isn’t the kind of player that I think of myself. But, you know, it’s very early in the season. As I said, I’m just working to get to the player I want to be.
“[W]e all just have to remain calm.”
It will be easier for Atlanta fans to remain calm now that they have seen the Five Stripes’ celebrated January signing make a tangible impact. His performance Sunday still did not meet Martinez’s high standard, but he did put two of four shots on target, connected on 59 of 80 passes (83 percent) and won three fouls. And he did score the goal. Against Orlando and in previous victories over Sporting Kansas City and Toronto FC, Martinez did not try to force the action but instead played within the flow of the games. The 35-yard attempts at goal have been replaced by simple, more effective passes and runs. The Five Stripes attack has improved.
Atlanta failed to win in its first four Major League Soccer games of the 2019 season. The Five Stripes now have won five of six, keeping a clean sheet in each triumph. With 17 points from a 5-3-2 record, Atlanta sits fifth in the Eastern Conference, six points behind the first-place Philadelphia Union with two games in hand.
In the locker room Sunday, Martinez explained his brush-off celebration: “Just to kind of get rid of the bad energy of not having scored in a while.” Atlanta will play five more games in the next three weeks. Martinez has ample opportunity to keep the good vibes going.