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Josef Martinez's Injury Casts Shadow Over Atlanta, MLS's 2020 Season

Just like that, Atlanta United's outlook has drastically changed–and so has that for a number of Eastern Conference challengers–after a season-opening injury to one of MLS's most indispensable players.

MLS is a league in which parity is engineered, where more than half the teams make the playoffs and all but the historically inept are usually two or three good results away from postseason contention. The impact of an individual regular season game, especially before September, is pretty much always negligible.

Except for when this happens. Except for when an entire season turns with the twist of a knee.

Atlanta United’s Josef Martínez, the 2018 MLS and MLS Cup MVP who’s been a Best XI forward in each of this three years in the league, will see that streak end after tearing his right ACL on Saturday in Nashville. The Venezuelan went down in the 62nd minute after racing NSC’s David Romney for a through ball and appeared to be in distress almost immediately, pointing at his right knee. The relentless Martínez, naturally, re-entered the field and tried to play through the pain. But he was removed from the match (a 2-1 Atlanta win) a few seconds later.

The club confirmed the ACL diagnosis on Sunday evening and said surgery would be scheduled “on a date to be determined to begin the rehabilitation process.” No additional details on the extent of the injury were provided.

A case could be made that Martínez is the single most important player in the league (certainly Carlos Vela also has an argument). The formerly durable 26-year-old has tallied an astonishing 82 goals in 93 MLS regular season and playoff appearances, while becoming the scowling face (or smiling, when he’s off the field) of Atlanta’s impressive three-year run of success. He’s embraced the city and been embraced in return, all while discovering that elusive groove where he can be both comfortable and prolific.

In a story this month in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about a mural of Martínez painted on a building just southwest of downtown, United coach Frank de Boer said, “The people love him. His mentality is to try to win every game and to give his best. … If they are talking about Atlanta United and talking about players, I think 95% or 98% they will start to talk about Josef. We know that he has a great impact in Atlanta and he’s very popular.”

Atlanta United's Josef Martinez tears his ACL
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Martínez signed a new Designated Player contract in January 2019 that ties him to United through the 2023 season. He earned a base salary of $3 million last year, according to the MLS Players Association. Upon agreeing to that deal, Martínez said of Atlanta, “For me, this is my Barcelona or my Real Madrid.”

If only United had the flexibility of the Spanish superpowers. The presumably season-long loss of Martínez isn’t a problem that can be solved by Atlanta owner Arthur Blank’s billions or boundless ambition. Remember that engineered parity? MLS has strict rules about how much roster depth a given club can have. Martínez can be replaced, but he can’t be replicated. 

If he's put on MLS's season-ending injury list to free up a roster spot, then his replacement can’t earn more than $250,000 in base compensation, per MLS roster rules. MLS forwards who made a similar salary last year, according to MLSPA figures, included Dominique Badji, Teal Bunbury, Valentin Castellanos, Ola Kamara, Patrick Mullins, and Kacper Przybylko. 

Atlanta remains restricted even beyond the season-ending list, because it's at its full allotment of DPs between Martinez, Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco. It can get creative with its remaining targeted allocation money, but that limits its player search considerably.

The other striker listed on Atlanta's roster is the recently-acquired Adam Jahn. The 29-year-old spent last season with Phoenix Rising in the USL Championship.

At the moment, the three points earned Saturday are practically irrelevant. Atlanta just got a lot worse this weekend. That doesn’t mean it won’t make the playoffs (seven of 13 Eastern teams get in) or that the season is destined to be a total write-off. Unexpected things happen in sports. But Martínez’s injury does seem to throw the league’s Eastern Conference race wide open, thereby boosting the championship prospects of several other clubs. It also does significant damage to United’s (and MLS’s) Concacaf Champions League prospects. Atlanta faces Club América in a quarterfinal series on March 11 and 18.

Such is the size of the shadow Martínez casts over opposition penalty areas, that any story of the 2020 season will have to include his injury. Barring a remarkable, storybook recovery by Atlanta, whichever team represents the East in the MLS Cup final will have had its trajectory altered for the better by Martínez’s absence. A massive hurdle has been taken away, the course of a season changed. All because of one game at the end of February.