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What a Josef Martinez contract extension might tell us about his Atlanta United future

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It’s a matter of contingencies.

2018 MLS Cup - Portland Timbers v Atlanta United Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Josef Martinez has set Atlanta alight since arriving in MLS and spearheading the best attack in the league over two seasons, culminating in a MLS Cup championship and league MVP campaign in 2018. Thanks to MLS’s collective bargaining agreement, we know that Martinez has done so on relatively meager earnings — just $1.39 million in total compensation. There exists a wide gap between the Venezuelan’s current earnings and his on-field performance, something that Atlanta United President Darren Eales recognizes and acknowledged will likely change soon.

“We’ve said that after the season, we’d have a chat with him and I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to get something [done] that will keep Josef in Atlanta for a long time to come,” Eales told MLSsoccer.com’s Andrew Wiebe on an episode of Extra Time Radio last week about Martinez’s contract. In addition, Sam Stejskal reported the day after MLS Cup Final that Martinez and the club would negotiate a new deal this offseason. As they should.

Assuming a deal is struck this winter, Martinez’s compensation — once it’s made public after the close of MLS’s spring transfer window — will speak volumes about both the player and the club’s long term plans.

Logically, Martinez can make the argument that he should be among the league’s highest paid players — even the highest paid player. If the negotiation is based on performance, it’s tough to argue Josef should earn anything less considering the impact he’s made and the many records he’s already broken.

The question is not whether Martinez can earn a top-five league salary, but does he want to? The higher his wages rise with his new contract, the more difficult it will be to find a suitable buyer for him down the road if he decides he wants to give Europe another shot.

Let’s look at this from Darren Eales’ perspective. He and others have stated time and again that the model and sustainability of the club is built on an idea of cycling players, especially the designated players, through the system to keep revenue streaming into the club. These revenues can then be reinvested into more and more expensive transfers over time (with an added bonus of adding to the team’s pool of allocation money). That said, Josef Martinez feels like a “franchise” player for Atlanta. His production, his marketability and the way Josef represents Atlanta United’s brand on- and off the field could make him an indispensable asset for the club.

So Eales (and Martinez) can go about this two ways. One is to agree to a massive deal — roughly $6+ million per year. This would put him up amongst MLS’s highest earners, as shown here:

What do you notice looking at this? Like the disparity between performance and pay that exists in Josef’s personal deal, a similar — albeit opposite— gap appears when looking at the players on this list. But these players all have one thing in common: their clubs are not going to sell them. In fact, these high wages are likely what attracted most of these players to join these clubs in the first place.

So if Martinez or Eales feel that a sale to Europe is something that could be mutually beneficial down the line, it would make sense to agree to wages more modest than a top-five league salary. Last year, the BBC reported the average wage of a Premier League player surpassed £50,000 per week, equating to $3.3 million per year. A $6 million salary for Martinez would put him on the upper end of that Premier League’s wage spectrum. And according to the same BBC article, the Premier League spends almost twice as much in wages as the next closest league, La Liga. So a move anywhere outside England would make Martinez among the highest paid players in any of those leagues. Regardless of his production in MLS, would a top European side be willing to invest that kind of money in player who has already once struggled in one of Europe’s top leagues?

Martinez’s new contract will be illuminating. The higher his wages turn out to be, the more likely he is to stay in Atlanta for as long as he’s under contract. If the contract turns out to be in the $6 million range, I’d guess that means both he and the club are comfortable in him seeing out his career, or the vast majority of it, as an Atlanta United player. If it’s just a small raise to $2-2.5 million, it’s likely that Martinez (and possibly the club as well) will be wanting to keep their options open.