As defending MLS champion Atlanta United starts a new chapter with Dutch manager Frank de Boer, questions surrounding his tactics are on every supporter’s mind. How will this club play in contrast to Tata Martino’s pressing, no-nonsense style? And perhaps more importantly, can the Five Stripes maintain the same level of excellence, win MLS Cup again and capture the Concacaf Champions League crown that has eluded MLS clubs for so long?
For Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez, Atlanta's new Designated Player and the latest South American star to join MLS, the solution to repeating success and building on it is pretty simple.
“The key is to never take your foot off the pedal and never relax,” the 25-year-old Argentine playmaker told SI.com. “Something that can happen with teams who are coming off a championship is a drop in intensity, and we just can’t afford to do that.”
Martinez joined Atlanta from River Plate last week after months of unsurprising speculation, and he'll step into the large void left behind by Miguel Almiron, who is bound for Newcastle in a record outgoing transfer for an MLS club. Martinez, who helped River Plate win the Copa Libertadores before joining Atlanta, has a championship pedigree, and he believes that everything begins with an aggressive, us-against-them mentality, regardless whether it’s a defending champion or not. If the club stays hungry, then it will keep winning.
“This won’t be easy, but we have to keep working, keep growing and stay hungry on winning it all again," says Martinez, whose nickname, Pity, comes from the name of a bird in his native country. "The good thing, from what I’ve seen so far in training, that’s exactly what’s happening.”
Martinez has been an Atlanta player for a week now, but he’s known about the club ever since its first season, given its heavy Argentine influence. He said that the exit of Martino, who previously managed Argentina's national team, never deterred him from joining the club, though.
“I was very aware of Tata Martino’s arrival, of course, but also the core Argentine technical staff that were with him the last two seasons,” Martinez said. "His departure never affected me, because he may have gone, but Atlanta’s mentality remains, and that has always been part of my decision. The way they approach the game.”
While Atlanta’s interest in Martinez began two years ago when technical director Carlos Bocanegra first watched him play during a scouting tour in Argentina, the player says negotiations between his representatives and the club didn’t officially finalize until the end of November 2018 and once Atlanta met his release clause.
“Both clubs were dealing with important games during that period, so we had to put it on the side,” Martinez said. “My mind was 100% focused with River Plate and Libertadores, so my reps pretty much left it alone until the end of November, beginning of December.”
It’s hard to imagine for Martinez to focus on anything else other than that final, as the two-legged Copa Libertadores title bout between bitter Buenos Aires rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors would end up being one of the most tumultuous, dramatic fixtures in modern soccer history for mainly the wrong reasons. After a 2-2 result in the first leg at Boca's La Bombonera, the originally scheduled second leg at River Plate’s Monumental was tainted with violence. Boca’s bus was attacked on its way to the stadium, forcing multiple postponements and an eventual relocation of the match out of South America altogether, to Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
Martinez remembers hearing the news of the attack in the dressing room. Despite never feeling like he was in danger himself, he was anxious to hear news on the safety of his opponents.
“All I could think about was the Boca players and the club’s staff," Martinez said. "Our entire team was just hoping they were O.K.”
Two weeks later, the teams finally played in Madrid, and River Plate won in extra time, 5-3 on aggregate. In the final moments of the game, Martinez scored the third goal, sealing the victory and the famous title triumph. As Boca Juniors was desperately searching for the equalizer on a corner kick, throwing everyone in the box including the goalkeeper, River cleared, countered and Martinez ran the ball into an empty net with the last kick of the game.
In those seconds when running towards an empty goal, Martinez remembers it like a movie scene set in slow motion.
“It was an incredible moment," he said. "When I heard River Plate fans celebrate in the stands after I scored, it was a memory I will never forget.”
Three weeks after that, the attacking midfielder was named as South America’s 2018 men’s player of the year, an award voted by 320 journalists from the continent and presented by Uruguay’s El Pais newspaper.
Now comes a new year with fresh objectives in a new country and a new league, but given the heavy Argentine influence in MLS, Martinez feels confident he’s more than capable of quickly establishing himself, just like some other countrymen before him. A number feature for his new team, including last season's record signing, 19-year-old DP Ezequiel Barco.
“I knew of all the Argentine players who play here and how well they represent our country and South America,” he says, thinking about players such as Federico Higuain and ex-Boca manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the former MLS and MLS Cup MVP who is now managing the LA Galaxy. “I’m very aware of how much we have given to this league, so I’m here to do the same and also carry the responsibility to stay champions and win Concacaf Champions League.”
Martinez, who earned his first appearance for the Argentina national team in September against Guatemala, also has big aspirations with La Albiceleste, especially at a time when the country is looking to reinvent itself after last summer’s World Cup exit to eventual champion France in the round of 16.
“I had the fortune of featuring for Argentina last year, and it felt great because, quite honestly, this is a team that doesn’t wait for you, you have to take your chance when you get it,” Martinez said.
He knows that competition is heavy under interim manager Lionel Scaloni, but he still hopes for a spot in this summer’s Copa America.
“That’s my goal–to go with the team to Copa America and show the manager that I want to be there and I want to play in the tournament," Martinez said. "In the end, I feel like it’s all down to me and to show that I am good enough, and I’m ready to work for it.”
If all goes as planned for Martinez, then another question remains: after seeing the rise of Almiron and his eventual transfer to Europe, how long will it be until he follows the same path?
“My plan is to be here and achieve the most I can in MLS, and then, well … if someday there is a chance to go to Europe, I’ll obviously think about it, because it’s a place where I’d love to play," Martinez said. "But for now I am here in Atlanta, and it’s all I am focused on.”
"Focused" is a good adjective to describe Martinez, a player who despite having big ambitions never looks too far ahead and prioritizes the needs of his current employer above anything else.
And that should be nothing but great news for Atlanta United.