In seven minutes Sunday night, Josef Martinez gave them what they were looking for.
Moments after he impacted a play from an offside position to disallow a go-ahead goal, Martinez needed to be restrained from a fan as he walked to the locker room and the green light turned on for a vocal portion of the Atlanta United fan-base that had been patiently waiting at the intersection of “Why doesn’t he run more?” and “If my kid ever reacted that way to being subbed off I don’t know what I’d do but I know it would involve wind sprints.”
A pair of prominent mistakes opened the door to a buzzword-laden assault on Martinez’s playing style and, in turn, his character.
“He’s lazy.” “He’s immature.” “He’s a bad role model.” “Did we mention he’s lazy?”
Admittedly, Josef had a bad game. We’ve said as much here on DSS. A combination of facing, you know, the best team in the league right now, that team playing a very high defensive line and forcing Atlanta into a long ball playing style that does everything but play to his strengths, and a nagging injury* didn’t help.
*Strangely, no one seems to be lauding Josef for playing 90 minutes with an injury. You would think that would be prime “Look at how he fights through pain for the good of the team. It’s just like in the good old days when I played with a broken leg and a back brace three sizes too small” fodder but instead here we are. A lose-lose scenario where playing with a minor injury means playing below normal standards which means backlash, or not playing at all which means he doesn’t care about the team enough to play through a minor injury which means backlash.
If he had scored despite all that — he was inches away from getting his head to a stoppage-time winner — we wouldn’t even be talking about the two incidents. Although maybe it should be more like one and a quarter incidents.
Watch Josef. He holds up play, makes an excellent pass out wide, recognizes he has an opportunity to attack a stretched back line and get to the near post for a cross, makes a hard-charging run and as he’s slowing up to turn around and find the ball, Darlington Nagbe is taking the shot. It’s a sequence that hardly feels lazy. More like a textbook move from the best striker in the league that happened to result in an accident. Maybe he could have swerved to avoid Sean Johnson but he had just turned to find the ball when Johnson comes across to stop Nagbe’s shot, and, let’s be real, who was expecting Nagbe to do that.
Then he heads to the locker room. He’s frustrated about the goal being taken away. He’s frustrated that NYCFC’s back line is keeping him from finding space. He’s frustrated that Atlanta’s only idea is to blast the ball forward and have him play chase. His hand won’t stop bothering him. And then as he’s walking by his own fans he gets told he’s lazy. That he doesn’t care.
Josef Martinez cares more about scoring goals for this team than you care about having oxygen.
To suggest otherwise is a personal affront to his entire being. It’s like calling a cheetah slow. It’s like telling Neil DeGrasse Tyson that he should work harder to ruin fun things with science. It’s like telling Imagine Dragons to quit making mediocre music. It’s their sole purpose in life and they define themselves by it. Scoring is all Josef thinks about.
“As a forward, it’s my passion but it’s also my job,” he said after tallying his fourth hat trick in 23 games against Vancouver. “I get frustrated when I don’t do my job. When I don’t score, I feel sorry for my mom [because of the things I say].”
His teammates notice what it means to him. Even when it’s a simple training drill, Josef is dying to score.
“He gets angry in training when he doesn’t score,” Michael Parkhurst said. “He’s so competitive. I’d hate to play against him.”
We have the privilege of watching someone who cares that much about success represent our city each week. Not only do they care, they’re incredibly good at their job. Despite being held scoreless against NYCFC Martinez is still on pace to smash MLS records. He’s scored 24 goals in 26 games with Atlanta United, an unheard of output.
Sometimes he’s called offside but 22 other teams in this league would give almost anything to have Josef Martinez, offside positioning and all. Yet some fail to understand how lucky we are to have him. Why? Because he’s demonstrative? Because he’s not wasting energy on lung-busting runs that accomplish nothing but satisfy an action bias?
It seems that they would rather replace goals with corporate apathy. The thought is that their version of a “dignified” approach will somehow push Josef to new heights but it’s madness that makes the monster that is Josef Martinez. The thought comes from a breed of fan that wants athletes to care, but only on their terms.
We have a choice as fans. We can support one of the most electric athletes in this city’s history and empathize with the fact that sometimes our emotions get the better of us too, or you can try and stifle the spark of insanity that makes him so electric in the first place. You can call him lazy. You can say he’s immature. You can say he’s not a role model despite the fact that so many of us would kill to be as passionate about anything in our lives. If you’re ok with all that then you don’t deserve Josef Martinez. Frankly, I’m not sure any of us do.