Meet Josef Martinez, MLS' new goal king
With Major League Soccer yet to pervade the mainstream European football psyche, the spotlight settled on Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney navigating their first season in North America. Both are doing well but neither is tearing up the league like Atlanta United's speedy Venezuelan, Josef Martinez.
Martinez eclipsed the MLS record for most goals in a single season with the Five Stripes' winner over Orlando City on Friday night. The strike was his 28th. Roy Lassiter set the old mark in 1996, MLS' debut campaign, 22 years ago. San Jose Earthquakes' Chris Wondolowski matched it in 2012 as did Bradley Wright-Phillips of the New York Red Bulls two years later.
Ibrahimovic and Rooney enjoyed tremendously remarkable careers in Europe. Before spending part of a season together at Manchester United, they rained goals on the continent. The pair will have a combined age of 70 by the end of October, have nearly eight centuries in their professional careers. Only two Brazilians, Arthur Friedenreich and Pele did better, each as a solo act.
This season, Ibra is tied with BWP for second on the list, with 16. Rooney, who arrived late, is working his way up the charts with three goals and as many assists in nine appearances.
Martinez never impressed over five seasons in Europe. At Swiss side Young Boys, he plundered just five goals. That pitiful return prompted a loan move to Thun, then permanently to Torino in Italy.
The luscious chocolates in Turin couldn't sweeten his fortunes. Martinez's maiden campaign yielded only seven strikes. Andrea Belotti stepped in to demonstrate how it's done. Games became few and far between for Martinez. Torino was happy to let him leave on loan to MLS in February 2017.
Barely a month into the loan, Atlanta was convinced to make the transfer permanent. They were rewarded accordingly. After scoring five times in his first three games, Martinez finished with 19 league goals as the debutante Five Stripes reached the playoffs. He'd have added more were it not for injuries that cost him several games on the season.
My memory of watching him play in the Copa America Centenario was very fresh, and I thought that instead of having him play behind the forward like he did with his national team, he was strong enough and smart enough to occupy spaces in the box.
MLS has never seen anything like Martinez; sturdy, powerful and ruthless. He blends speed, courage and uncanny ability to sniff out scoring chances. Whether on his right foot, left or his head, the man is dangerous. His 28 goals have come from 75 shots attempted, with 47 hitting the target.
This season, Martinez hasn't missed a match. Eight games remain to be played from 34. He's scoring more than a goal per game. His ultimate benchmark might stand even longer than Lassiter's did. Especially with nearest rivals Ibrahimovic and Wright-Phillips trailing by a dozen. Nor does the Atlanta talisman need to step up his game much to reach the 40-goal plateau. As it stands, he's on a pace to reach 37.
Zlatan and Rooney are superior marketing draws. LA Galaxy and DC United are paying them to attract fans with their celebrity. Atlanta has winning in mind. Martino targets younger players from Central and South America with a longer-term project in mind.
Martinez's terrifying streak has made him a local superstar in Georgia. He was even invited to throw out the opening pitch at an Atlanta Braves game back in April. His fan base is stretching to Europe. Given his physique, pace and trickery, he could suit the Premier League game. A move to a mid-table team would be a good start.