Before February 29th, 2020, Josef Martinez was arguably the hottest goal scorer in Major League Soccer. The 2018 MLS MVP was poised for another long playoff run with the five stripes before injury struck him in the 63rd minute of Atlanta United’s opening game against Nashville SC in the Dirty South Derby. Martinez played four more minutes before he was eventually replaced by Adam Jahn in the 67th minute. Unfortunately for United, the 2-1 thrill of victory did not last long as it was revealed after the game their star striker had indeed suffered a torn ACL in his right knee, and while a return by the end of the season is possible, it is not expected.
Now, the entire complexion of the season will be changing for Atlanta. In their first game without Martinez, United did manage to sneak past FC Cincinnati by a score of 2-1 in fairly comfortable fashion. However, Atlanta was be expected to win that game with or without their best player 10 times out of 10. The real question is “Can Atlanta make a deep playoff run without him?” With the MLS season poised to return eventually, and a city full of high hopes for their club, here are three players that need to step up to replace Josef Martinez
1. Ezequiel Barco
The 21-year-old Argentinian has improved significantly, scoring ten goals in 43 appearances for Atlanta United. After only making 15 league appearances last year because of injury, Barco has progressed from a “dribble first” minded player that would often lose the ball in key places on the pitch, to a crafty play-maker that looks dangerous every time he touches the ball. He is also crucial in controlling the tempo of the game. With Martinez out, however, the Argentinian may need to find a bit of his former self. Barco’s role now is simple; he HAS to be the goalscorer. He is currently the best overall player on the team, and with no proven forward to send the ball to from his attacking midfield position, Barco must be the one finding the back of the net.
2. Pity Martinez
If Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron were the primary reason for United’s 2018 MLS championship, any hopes for a second championship will rest on Ezequiel Barco and Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez. The good news for United supporters is that both of these players hail from Argentina, so the styles they grew up playing will be very similar, therefore creating some excellent chemistry between the two rising stars. The former River Plate midfielder will be looking to add to his five-goal and nine assist total from last year, while also playing a more direct style of play. Pity will need to be the guy taking on players 1v1, as he will most likely assume a role that is wider than the one he is used to playing, helping create space for Barco in the middle of the pitch. Pity will look to add to his assist total from last year, aiding the Five Stripes in their quest for another title.
3. Brooks Lennon
I know, I know. You’ve never heard of this guy, but you better get ready. Lennon, a right-back turned midfielder, spent time with Premier League side Liverpool in their youth academy before joining Real Salt Lake in 2017 and then finally Atlanta United a couple of months later. Lennon, who appears over the first couple of games to have a wing-back type role in head coach Frank de Boer’s 3-4-3 formation, is best known for his crossing ability and his quality 1v1 defending. Look for the 22-year-old American to see more of the ball and the stat sheet as the season progresses.
Bonus: JJ Williams
About seven days after Josef Martinez was ruled out with his injury, Atlanta United signed former Columbus Crew and Birmingham Legion forward JJ Williams. Recording 7 goals in 21 games for the Legion, Williams will “provide another option for the attack,” said club VP Carlos Bocanegra. He is a bonus because it is currently unclear what his job with the club will be. The young 22-year-old has yet to score an MLS goal, so even filling half the role Josef Martinez created will be challenging for him.