Atlanta United and its star striker, Josef Martínez, continue to smash expectations as the 25-year-old Venezuelan broke the MLS scoring record Friday with his 28th goal of the season.

By Brian Straus
August 25, 2018

Get used to reading about Josef Martínez breaking Major League Soccer’s single-season goal scoring record. Because based on the Atlanta marksman’s absurd conversion rate, he’s almost certain to do it a bunch more times over the next couple months.

On each occasion, however, he’ll be breaking his own mark. Friday night in Orlando was the first, as Martínez made the record his own and set himself up to obliterate the old standard by season’s end. Across MLS’s first 22 regular seasons, three men managed to score 27 goals. Then the prolific Martínez notched his 28th of 2018 (and the game-winner) in the 74th minute of Atlanta United’s 2-1 win at Orlando City Stadium. It was his ninth-straight game with a goal (that ties a league record) and leaves him with eight more matches to break the record again, and again, and perhaps put it out of reach for good.

MLS has never seen anything like Martínez, a sturdy, powerful and ruthlessly efficient 25-year-old Venezuelan. Nor has it seen anything like Atlanta, the second-year team that was as unkind to the MLS 2.0 paradigm as Martínez has been to opposing goalkeepers. The only check on owner Arthur Blank’s ambition has been the league’s rules. And his commitment to long-term planning and investment, the recruitment of Argentine coach Tata Martino and an able front office and significant scouting and spending on young South American talent, has resulted in an attacking juggernaut that’s been difficult to slow down.

Deploy a player of Martínez’s quality at the vanguard of that kind of machine, and records result. Friday’s history-maker was indicative of both the individual and collective quality that’s lifted Atlanta to the league’s best record (16-4-6). Martínez had endured an uncharacteristically frustrating evening. Orlando, in the midst of a miserable season and three-month free fall, didn’t want to yield the record-breaker on home soil. U.S. national team veteran Jonathan Spector was key to City’s plan, and he did well shadowing Martínez through the first hour. And when the striker did break free in the 41st minute, he mishandled a pass from Tito Villalba and cracked a shot well-wide of the right post.

The golden goal finally came in the 74th, and it was quintessentially Atlanta. Right back Julian Gressel orchestrated a give-and-go with Villalba in the United half and dribbled the ball assertively into the space created. This is a team that’s so dynamic and dangerous on the break, and the runs are well-timed and disorienting to a defense (and Orlando’s defense is not good). Miguel Almirón, who’s often the one with the ball at his feet, made a smart near-post run that opened space in the left channel for Martínez. Gressel saw it and fed Martínez, who touched the ball past a flailing Spector before, in an instant, chipping goalkeeper Joe Bendik.

Martínez can finish with his head, off the dribble, with a quick release in traffic or just about any other way goals can be scored. He’s fearless, tireless and has a preternatural feel for the flow of play and space inside the penalty area. His 28 goals (including six penalties) have come from 77 shots, giving him a 36% conversion rate that’s about three times the league average (that’s according to TruMedia Networks). And if he continues at this 1.08 goals-per-game pace (he’s got three hat tricks this year), he’ll finish the regular season with 36-37 goals.

That’s eclipsing the old record—held jointly by Roy Lassiter (1996), Chris Wondolowski (2012) and Bradley Wright-Phillips—by around 36%. After 23 seasons, that’s an absurd amount of separation. For flimsy comparison’s sake, when Wayne Gretzky scored his jaw-dropping 92 goals in 1981-82, a figure no one had conceived of before then, he beat Phil Esposito’s 11-year-old NHL mark by 21%.

The record has been inevitable for weeks, but it’s tough to say anyone saw this coming long term. Martínez arrived in Atlanta early last year from Italy, where he scored 13 goals in 2.5 seasons at Torino, often playing a more withdrawn attacking role. He already was a regular with the Venezuelan national team, which struggles in South America. But Martínez caught Martino’s eye during the 2016 Copa América Centenario, and the veteran coach recently told ESPN that he thought the player could make an impact higher up the field.

"My memory of watching him play in the Copa América 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,” Martino said.

Martínez has flourished under Martino, leading the line, and in Atlanta. He’s a showman, but not a talker—his post-goal glare at Bendik, then the stoic removal and display of his jersey to Atlanta’s traveling supporters—was a powerful but silent gesture. He’s tired of all the talk about his record chase.

"I believe scoring goals is my job,” he said.

But it’s one he relishes, and one he’s historically good at. He’s now got 47 goals in 46 regular season MLS games, and he’s doing it at a bargain-basement annual salary of $1.4 million. While he’s almost certainly caught the eye of European sides, it’s worth noting that the single-season scoring record is lower in MLS than in many prominent circuits. Lionel Messi’s La Liga mark is 50. Mo Salah broke the 38-game Premier League record last season with 32 goals (Everton’s Dixie Dean holds the top-tier English record with an unreachable 60), and Gerd Müller struck 40 times for Bayern Munich in 1971-72. The Brazilian Serie A mark is 34, set by Washington in 2004, and Paraguayan forward José Cardozo scored 50 regular-season goals for Toluca in 2002-03.

There are several possible explanations for the lower MLS total. The talent of the finishers and the men providing them with service obviously is one. But MLS is challenging in other ways, from the travel and relatively extreme weather, to the parity that makes stat-padding blowouts harder to come by. Former LA Galaxy forward Robbie Keane, who’s the 14th-leading marksman in Premier League history, said during his MLS sojourn, “When people ask me about the league and stuff like that, you have to come here first to realize how hard it is to play here. Everyone is on the same level.”

He said that in early 2013, well before Blank and Atlanta raised the ante and the bar, and long before Martínez laid waste to a standard first set during the league’s inaugural season. Atlanta hasn’t broken MLS Golden State Warriors-style. The New York Red Bulls and New York City FC are chasing in the East, and then there’s the matter of the MLS Cup playoffs, which will render the ultimate verdict on United’s campaign.

"I prefer winning [MLS Cup] than any personal trophy," Martínez told ESPN. "My motivation is winning the league.”

It’s an old and somewhat silly U.S. pro sports convention that playoff statistics aren’t included in a player’s full-year total (one the NCAA doesn’t follow, and obviously the World Cup and similar events don’t award the golden boot after the group stage). Playoff matches are part of the year-long competition that produces a single recognized champion. They’re league contests, and postseason appearances are earned, not the result of an inequitable accident of scheduling. Although MLS continues to follow a standard set by a different sport (baseball) in a different century, Martínez’s goals—and his ultimate goal—suggest there’s more to come and more to do.

He’ll leave the regular-season mark in the dust. But an MLS year continues past October, and it’s about more than the regular season. And so there’s still another threshold to be reached. In 1996, Lassiter followed up his 27 regular season markers with six in the playoffs as the Tampa Bay Mutiny (RIP) advanced to the conference finals. That's one man, one year, 33 goals. In 2002, Carlos Ruiz tallied 32 in league play for the champion Galaxy—24 in the regular season and eight in the playoffs.

So there’s something still out there for Martínez to chase, besides just re-breaking his own record, if he’s to truly become the undisputed single-season king. At this rate, and with that team behind him, he’s still a good bet to do so.

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