For the second time this week, Martínez was not among Atlanta’s starting XI. Brandon Vazquez again started as a second forward in the 3-5-2 formation. Martínez subbed on for Vazquez in the 65th minute and was quiet for most of his shift. But with stoppage time approaching and the Five Stripes in need of a goal, he made his mark.
Martínez broke a scoreless deadlock in the 89th minute, rising up to connect on Darlington Nagbe’s floated cross from the end line. He surged through the center of D.C.’s defense, buried a point-blank header and crashed into the goal.
“He went somewhere where it hurts sometimes,” Julian Gressel said of Martínez’s winner. “Inside the five-yard box, he was fearless to go in there.”
Martínez has struggled to find his form this season. When he joined Atlanta from River Plate in January, hardly anyone would have expected the 2018 South American Footballer of the Year to be relegated to a substitute’s role in July.
“I always want to play,” Martínez said through an interpreter after the game. “I want to play every game. I train and go to the club every day to get better and play every game. It’s been my turn to be on the bench. It’s a coach’s decision. I can just give my best every time I’m called on to enter and try to earn my spot back.”
The victory moved Atlanta (11-8-3, 36 points) into second place in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference. D.C. (9-6-8, 35 points) sits third. Sunday’s game was a true six-pointer in the race for MLS Cup playoff seeding and the Concacaf Champions League berth that comes with finishing atop the East.
Jul 21, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; D.C. United defender Donovan Pines (23) heads the ball over Atlanta United midfielder Emerson Hyndman (16) in the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
El Pity’s breakthrough came nine days after he created a firestorm by criticizing his manager on an Argentine radio station. It was even more poetic because Martínez came through the same day Atlanta’s most prolific attacking star faltered.
When Josef Martínez drew a foul in the penalty area and stepped to the spot in the 72nd minute, all of the announced 44,405 in attendance expected the Venezuelan to put Atlanta in front. Josef Martínez used his trademark jump-step run-up, but instead of scoring he chipped the ball well over Bill Hamid’s goal.
“He’s phenomenal for us,” Brad Guzan said in the locker room. “But he’s human.”
During stoppage time, Pity Martínez sent Josef Martínez behind D.C.’s back line with a perfectly weighted lofted pass near midfield. Josef Martínez did not waste his second one-v-one opportunity against Hamid and finished in the 92nd minute.
Josef Martínez has scored in seven consecutive league games, two off a record he co-owns.
Frank de Boer explained his decision to start Vazquez over Pity Martínez as sticking with something that had worked: Vazquez played well in the Five Stripes’ 5-0 win over the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday. De Boer said it is up to El Pity to make the manager’s life difficult and create difficult lineup decisions.
“The only reaction he can give me is this,” de Boer said. “I asked him to be in the box. He was in the box when the cross came.
“I saw a fantastic Pity today, and that gives him a lot of confidence — and that’s the most important thing — but also his teammates and the club and me.”
With Wayne Rooney getting a day off for rest, D.C. ceded possession and defended deep. United attempted to generate opportunities with quick counterattacks through Luciano Acosta, Paul Arriola and Lucas Rodríguez.
Atlanta and D.C. went into halftime scoreless thanks to goalkeeping brilliance at both ends. Hamid made two diving stops against Josef Martínez within the first 15 minutes. Thirty-three minutes in, Paul Arriola evaded Leandro González-Pírez near midfield and ran free toward Guzan, who held his ground and survived the moment with a kick save.
“You just try to close the angle and make yourself as big as possible,” Guzan said. “Fortunately I got a leg on it and we could keep it out.”
Atlanta is riding the momentum of a six-point week into a stretch of games that will go a long way toward defining this season. The Five Stripes next travel to meet Los Angeles FC at 10 p.m. ET Friday. That is followed by home dates against the LA Galaxy and New York City FC and away trips to the Portland Timbers and Orlando City. In between are a U.S. Open Cup semifinal at Orlando and the Campeones Cup against Liga MX power Club América.
“This could be a massive moment for us,” Guzan said. “This could be a big night for us in terms of sticking together and finding a way to get a result.”