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Pity Martinez leaves behind complicated legacy at Atlanta United

Pity’s star didn’t shine in MLS but it wasn’t all bad for the Argentina international...

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MLS: Nashville SC at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Pity Martinez’s transfer to Al-Nassr was confirmed on Monday night, thus ending a very strange era in Atlanta United’s short history.

Signed from River Plate in January 2019 for around $14 million, Martinez arrived at the Mercedes-Benz as a two-time Argentina international, reigning South American Player of the Year and Copa Libertadores winner. To say expectations were high would be an understatement.

What’s more, the 27-year-old was brought in as the prospective replacement for Miguel Almiron, who had just moved onto the Premier League with Newcastle United for $28 million, leaving a huge creative and goalscoring gap in the 2018 MLS Cup champions’ roster.

With Pity now gone — for a handsome $18 million fee, mind — there is plenty of debate among the Five Stripes faithful as to just how his time with Atlanta United will be remembered.

Was he a success? A failure? Or just an inconsistent player, capable of moments of magic but who never truly settled in Atlanta or Major League Soccer as a whole?

Looking at the raw data, it’s hard to make too strong a case in favour of Martinez repaying the league-high fee Atlanta United parted with to prise him away from River Plate.

In 54 games across all competitons, Martinez managed 11 goals and 14 assists, hardly league-record-transfer worthy numbers. However, it’s also important to consider that the Argentina international did score twice en route to Atlanta United’s 2019 US Open Cup triumph, including what turned out to be the winning goal in the final against Minnesota United, while his record of two assists in two MLS playoff matches further illustrates that he was capable of showing up in big moments.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Minnesota United FC at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

However, all of that was often forgotten when Martinez would go through long swathes of the season without a single direct goal contribution — including during his first 11 games for Atlanta — while his tendancy to run down blind allies or fire shots so high over the bar they’re now likely being dodged by the International Space Station left fans scratching their heads and pull their hair out.

That said, to truly judge Martinez’s time with the Five Stripes, you must also consider the effect Atlanta’s managerial situation had on the player.

When originally readying himself for a move into North America, Tata Martino was still occupying the Atlanta United dugout and it was his style of play and pedigree which attracted Martinez to the transfer in the first place. However, by the time he arrived at the Mercedes-Benz, it was Frank de Boer who was in charge and to say the two had a tense working relationship would be selling it short.

Often times, Martinez would publicly show his frustation at being substituted while Atlanta were still chasing a goal, kicking chairs and throwing water bottles around as if he were a grounded teenager.

On other occasions, he simply seemed at odds with the more rigid style of play implemented by De Boer, who would regularly task Martinez with being Atlanta’s creative hub when a free role might have better suited him. One on occasion, he even went on record with his thoughts about De Boer’s tactics during a radio interview back home in Argentina, stating that if it were up to him, he’d return to River Plate.

“If it were for me, I would be at River, but there are differences with the technician. It does not happen of that,” his translated quotes read.

Martinez later clarified that he was focused on his performances on the pitch, but that his relationship with De Boer was a source of frustration.

“What I said was my opinion,” Martinez said in July 2019. “Frank has his opinion, and he’s going to say what he wants to say, but that’s my opinion. It just frustrated me what he said, [but] as I said before, I’m always focused on soccer.”

In an attempt to pour cold water on the situation with one of his most important players, De Boer sympathised with Martinez’s struggles to adapt to a new country.

“When you are new in a country, new culture, you have to adapt, the pressure on him to be one of the most important players of the league, its not coming in one day, it takes time,” De Boer said.

“My role is to get the best out of the team and to get the best results. When I think a player is not doing at this moment what we want, then I take him out.”

MLS: CD Motagua at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jumping back to the more recent past, De Boer has, of course, since departed the club following their disastrous MLS is Back campaign down in Orlando, where the Five Stripes suffered consecutive 1-0 defeats, rarely looking like scoring a goal.

Since leaving the club, De Boer has gone on record with Felipe Cardenas of the The Athletic to suggest that his relationship with Martinez was troubled, but that his decisions were purely based on performances.

“Last season, I had some trouble sometimes with a decision with Pity, but I think he started really well this season,” De Boer said.

“If he plays really well, of course he’ll play every game, but he didn’t play well and everybody could see that. I accept, because that’s normal with every player who comes from a new culture.”

Martinez responded by insisting he and his teammates always put in 100 per cent for De Boer and that he didn’t see the Dutchman’s removal from the dugout as a positive.

“We always gave everything for him and his staff,” he said. “These are decisions that the players don’t make. The club made decisions. It’s never good when a coach leaves.”

Martinez put in a statement performance during Stephen Glass’ first game in charge as interim manager last month, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win over Nashville SC. However, despite that, he clearly never inteded to remain in Atlanta long-term.

According to Darren Eales, Martinez’s move to Al-Nassr was one which the man himself wanted, while the club simply couldn’t turn down the chance to spin a profit on a player who had never consistently shown his best form with Atlanta United. Furthermore, the club have been keen to puff out their chest at the fact they’re now responsible for the two biggest sales in MLS history, including Almiron.

Now that it’s done, the move has to be seen as a positive for both parties. Martinez gets a fresh start and Atlanta United not only get $18 million, but also a spare Designated Player spot with which to strengthen their stuttering squad.

Pity leaves us all with a feeling of regret over what might have been had he adapted quicker to life in the United States or a different manager been in charge to bring the best out of him.

Still, for the US Open Cup final goal and his consistent willingness to try and make things happen for a struggling team, even when the chips were down, the club were right to publicly thank him for his services upon his departure.