It might be scarcely believable with the way things are going in the world right now, but MLS is indeed about to be back. Atlanta United will be returning to the pitch this weekend for their first regular season game since those halcyon days when the looming threat of a pandemic seemed like something distant rather than a daily fact of life. It feels like a million years ago, but this is still the same MLS season that Atlanta United already has two wins out of two games in. It’s unfortunately still the same season where the Five Stripes will have to go without future statue candidate Josef Martinez for the duration.
Even though Atlanta United will have to play without the prolific goalscorer and the face of the club for the remainder of the season, I’m not necessarily writing this season off completely. There’s no doubt that there’s going to be a bit of a step downward when you lose a player as ravenous a goalscorer as Josef is, but there’s still plenty of reason to feel optimistic about Atlanta’s chances at being a team that can compete at a high level in MLS this year. The main reason why I’m personally still very optimistic about this season for Atlanta United is down to one player: Pity Martinez.
Understandably, Pity has been flying under the radar a bit as Atlanta United enters the sloppily-named MLS Is Back Tournament this weekend. It was hard to imagine that the 2018 South America Footballer of the Year could go from those lofty heights that he reached as a superstar for River Plate to seemingly just falling into the shuffle with Atlanta United in MLS by the time the 2019 season was over, but it actually happened. However, I’d be shocked if Pity gets lost in the shuffle of things by the time this season is (hopefully) completed and finished. If anything, I’d expect Pity to have a fantastic season.
The key to all of this is that there’s some evidence to suggest that it takes players a season to adjust to the, um, eccentricity of MLS. One of my favorite things about MLS is that it is a deeply weird league in all facets — from the structure of the league itself to the league-standard style of play on the pitch. I’m not saying that MLS is the “cold, rainy Tuesday night in Stoke” of the soccer world or anything like that, but it’s definitely not a league where players can just waltz right in and start tearing up the league and assaulting the record books from the second they hop on the pitch.
It’s not hard to find examples of players who had to spend a year or so to adjust to the league. Though Pity’s not a prolific goalscorer so the following comparisons may be an exercise in comparing apples to oranges, I believe that it still goes to show what’s in store for even the top-tier players in MLS when it comes to adjusting to the league. All you have to do is look at Carlos Vela going from 14 goals and an average match rating (according to WhoScored.com) of 7.80 in 2018 to 36 goals and an absurd average rating of 8.48 in his MVP season of 2019. Then there’s the 2018 MVP Josef Martinez, who went from 19 goals in 2017 to 35 as he helped Atlanta United lift MLS Cup that season.
There are less exaggerated examples like Zlatan’s scoring output jumping from 22 to 31 between his first and second seasons in the league and then David Villa taking a season to get his feet under him at the baseball pitch in New York before he started putting in goals with regularity for NYCFC. The point is that it takes a while for even the best players to get used to what this league has to offer in terms of a challenge. The good news is that Pity has also started on a good note — he flew under the radar but that wasn’t because he wasn’t good. As a matter of fact, he was pretty doggone good last season and that was with all of the static surrounding his “slow” start with the team and coming off of basically going straight from one competition to another.
Although Pity has only got two league games this season under his belt, the form that we’ve seen from Pity to start off this season has been promising. Yeah, it’s been two league games against Cincinnati and Nashville and one-and-a-half rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League, but it’s not like these are teams who are just going to roll over and give up when they see Atlanta on the other side of the pitch, either. I’m not saying that I’d expect to see Pity Martinez rise up to play at MVP-caliber like the other players mentioned, but I will say that the adjustment period for Pity may be ending soon and we’re going to start to see him in a real comfort level when it comes to playing in MLS.
It’ll be interesting to see how everybody adjusts to the strange conditions of having to play meaningful soccer in a quarantine bubble, but it’ll be especially fascinating to see if Pity can become the star of the show for Atlanta United while all of this is going on. Again, it’s going to be near-impossible to replace Josef Martinez’s impact on the team while he’s injured. Fortunately, it’s good to know that Atlanta’s hopes are in some pretty capable hands right now. This could very well end up being the moment that we begin to see Pity Martinez take MLS completely by storm.