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Josef Martinez injury presents Atlanta United, Frank de Boer with toughest challenge yet

Atlanta United loses its top goalscorer and its emotional heartbeat

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United has been here before. Twice, in fact. In both 2017 and 2018, Atlanta United lost its most influential playmaker, Miguel Almiron, to hamstring injuries in the weeks preceding the MLS Cup playoffs. At the time, the injuries felt catastrophic — and they nearly were. But “lizard man,” as Greg Garza famously dubbed the Paraguayan, returned and helped Atlanta United in the playoffs (to varying degrees of success).

Josef Martinez’s situation is a bit different. Despite the initial optimistic indications shared Monday combined with the injury happening slightly earlier on the calendar than either of Almiron’s pulled hamstrings, this is still a tricky situation for the club to manage.

We should start at the nature of the injury itself before drawing comparisons between the two. A sprained or damaged knee is a very different type of injury than a pulled hamstring. Joints like the knee are weight-bearing and subject to more complex forces than a muscle like the hamstring. There are presumably more risks in trying to recover from the former too quickly. While both the knee and the hamstring are subject to re-aggravation if not healed completely, the knee carries much more risk for long term damage that could affect a player for years — or even the rest of a career. This is obviously something Atlanta needs to avoid, particularly considering Martinez is slated to be a core centerpiece of the team for years to come after signing a five-year contract extension prior to the season.

The impacts of the injuries are similar due to the quality and productivity of the players they affected, and the records reflect how detrimental the injuries were to the team. Atlanta United was only 2-2-2 in the six matches that Almiron missed at the latter stages of the previous two seasons (the record does not include the 2017 season finale, when Almiron came on as a sub to play 29 minutes in a 2-2 draw vs. Toronto FC).

But Josef Martinez’s impact is felt by his teammates through more than his goals alone. It’s his attitude — his demanding nature — that his teammates feed off of on the pitch. Frank de Boer discussed this in April, and even after only being months into his new job here in Atlanta, it was evident how important Josef’s character was for the team.

“He’s a very emotional figure. Everybody knows that. He’s so eager. Maybe [Phillipo] Inzhagi was a player like that. They are so eager to score. Their whole life is about scoring and I think that’s a fantastic characteristic as a striker... [Luiz] Suarez is the same. I remember when we’d play friendly games [at Ajax] he was scoring goals against amateur clubs, but he was taking the ball out of the net and running back, put it on the spot on the halfway line and try to score again. That’s the mentality Josef has. It’s fantastic to see. I love that.”

And Josef’s aura extends far beyond the pitch as well. Darren Eales spoke in January when Martinez’s 5-year extension was announced and emphasized just how important his impact is for fans.

“I think it’s true to say that in the city of Atlanta, he’s one of the biggest sports personalities here. He transcends not just the fans that are interested in soccer, but I think the people of the city know who Josef is because of the way he wears his heart on his sleeve and the way he is on the pitch.”

Replacing this kind of player is a challenge that goes far beyond the tactics board. Frank de Boer knows it, and he knows that he has to find a way to make sure his team does not skip a beat as they head to New York on Wednesday in a must-win situation for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. How do you replace a player who is the emotional heartbeat of your team?

“You cannot replace that. He’s unique in that stance,” De Boer told media at the training ground Monday. “It means other players have to step up. I have to deal with it. I can’t sit and cry in the corner that he’s not there. But I’m still positive. It brings other energy in the team that we have to try to explore.”