Atlanta United star Josef Martinez headed to Inter Miami

Sports

ATLANTA (AP) — Josef Martinez, the 2018 MVP and centerpiece of Atlanta United’s rise to prominence in Major League Soccer, was released by the club on Wednesday and quickly signed a deal with Inter Miami.

The complex, corresponding moves were not unexpected, given Martinez’s struggles last season under United coach Gonzalo Pineda. The striker was reportedly told months ago that he wasn’t going to be part of Atlanta’s future.

Still, it was jarring news for the city’s fan base, which had adopted the 29-year-old Venezuelan as one of its own. He was even the subject of a large mural painted on a wall near Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“It’s an emotional day,” United technical director Carlos Bocanegra said. “What he’s done for the city and what he’s done for the club are pretty unrivaled. He will always be a part of Atlanta United. He knows the doors here are always open to him.”

After three stellar seasons that included leading United to the MLS Cup championship in just its second year in the league, Martinez never seemed to regain his dynamic form following a severe knee injury in the 2020 league opener.

Now, he’s headed to South Florida.

Bocanegra called it a business decision that had been discussed with Martinez and his representatives throughout the offseason. He had a no-trade clause and a designated player contract worth more than $4 million for the upcoming season, which made it more difficult to find a deal that worked.

Finally, a deal came together with a club that Martinez felt was a good fit for him. Atlanta United was allowed one offseason buyout, which was used to remove Martinez from his designated player slot, and Inter Miami will pick up the remainder of his contract.

Bocanegra had raised the possibility to Martinez as far back as 2020 that this day would come.

“He came over to my house and we were sitting in the backyard, having a cigar, chatting about it,” Bocanegra recalled. “This is professional sports. We will have to part ways. Unfortunately, that time is now. This chapter is closed.”

Martinez had long expressed a desire to spend the rest of his career in Atlanta, even taking great pride in learning English so he would fit better in the community.

But the relationship with the club soured, so he’s eager to get a fresh start in Miami.

“I’m excited for the opportunity to represent Inter Miami and give the best of myself,” he said in a statement released before an introductory news conference. “This is a club with high aspirations and that aims to be amongst the best in the league. I hope to help the team achieve its objectives and leave my mark at the club.”

Martinez certainly left his mark in Atlanta, becoming the face of the expansion franchise after joining from Torino in Italy’s Serie A before the inaugural season in 2017. He scored 98 goals in 134 MLS appearances, and 111 goals over 158 matches in all competitions.

But it wasn’t just the stats.

It was the flair with which he played, a 5-foot-8 goal-scoring machine who fearlessly attacked the net, always seemed bigger than his stature and kept everyone guessing with the color of his hair.

He scored 19 goals in 20 matches his first season, helping United reach the playoffs.

The 2018 campaign was even better. He scored a then-record 31 goals to win the MLS Golden Boot, was selected as the league’s MVP and celebrated again at the end of the campaign as United captured the MLS Cup before more than 70,000 fans in Atlanta.

Martínez followed with another big season in 2019, scoring 27 goals in MLS play and 33 goals across all competition, but United lost at home in the conference finals. The team did add two more trophies to its case, claiming both the U.S. Open Cup and the Campeones Cup.

Then, in the 2020 opener at Nashville, Martinez went down with a torn ACL that kept him out the rest of the year.

Atlanta, meanwhile, went through turmoil in the coaching ranks, going through four managers in less than two years before Pineda was hired during the 2021 season.

He never seemed to mesh with the team’s biggest star, who was upset at being brought off the bench this past season. Martinez was even suspended for a week for what was described as conduct detrimental to the team.

After scoring 77 goals in 83 MLS appearances over his first three seasons, Martinez managed just 21 goals in 51 games the last three years.

Still, United officials all the way up to team owner Arthur Blank had nothing but kind words for Martinez on Wednesday.

“Josef Martínez has poured his heart and soul into Atlanta United,” Blank said. “Josef is a one-of-a kind, iconic athlete, and I’m grateful to him and his family for taking a chance on Atlanta and growing with us.”

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