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How should Gonzalo Pineda manage Josef Martinez’s minutes through the remainder of the regular season?

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Atlanta United must be careful with its star striker, made all the more difficult with the team’s postseason hopes in the balance.

MLS: Inter Miami CF at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Today I want to expound on a topic touched on briefly in yesterday’s State of Play, which is how difficult it will be for Gonzalo Pineda to appropriately manage Josef Martinez’s minutes in the team’s six remaining regular season matches.

This is obviously a topic worthy of discussion given Martinez’s current health status. He’s listed by the club as day-to-day with a hamstring injury suffered in the second half against Montreal a week-and-a-half ago, but it seems increasingly unlikely that he’ll be ready to join the team against Toronto given the reporting from the training ground yesterday.

Regardless of the hamstring, the more concerning issue is the state of Martinez’s surgically repaired knee, which requires heavy icing immediately after removal from games and has received injections and treatment prior to games to get it functioning properly.

“Last week I had a little problem due to playing a lot of minutes. I had some treatments and injections to get the ligaments moving,” Josef said September 29 after the team’s 1-0 win over Inter Miami. “Obviously, you want to play. We’ve had conversations. When you can play you can, when you can’t you can’t. After the goal they asked if I needed a substitution and I said no because the game was tight. But at the end my body said that was enough.

While ice and treatment to joints and muscles is normal for top athletes, it’s clear that this is a step beyond normal. It’s good to hear in Josef’s quote that he recognized his body sending him a signal that it was time to stop, but in that same quote he admits to feeling a need to persevere due to the nature of the game. In determining Martinez’s playing time, head coach Gonzalo Pineda may need to take a strong stance at times and refuse to allow Josef to put/keep himself on the field.

“I’ve said to you guys Josef is a warrior – someone that is going to do everything for this club, someone who is going to play with one leg if he has to,” Pineda said after that win over Miami. “I know Josef, and he has that big heart. It’s my job to make sure that he plays with both legs so he is more efficient, but I think he’s going to do whatever he needs to do to make sure the team wins.”

MLS: Inter Miami CF at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

As that game against Miami hung in the balance, so too does Atlanta United’s season over these next 6 matches. Having said that, ask anyone at the club and they’ll tell you that the goal is not just to make the playoffs, but to do damage and fight for a championship. And if they hope to do that, they will definitely need Martinez in as good of condition as possible when the postseason arrives in November.

All of Josef’s ailments at this point — the tight knee and the hamstring — point to overuse, as the player himself has acknowledged. It seems to me (not a doctor, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night) is that the congested fixture list that he played through leading up to his absence in Philadelphia more directly affects the knee, while the hamstring injury could be an indicator of more long term stress of the season. While Josef has “only” played 1,348 minutes in the league this year, thats a substantial increase from the 69 (nice) he played the year prior. So while Josef has played over his current amount of minutes many times in his career, he’s never done so coming off of the incapacitated state he was in during 2020.

Right about now, it’s worth remembering both the 2017 and 2018 seasons, seeing Miguel Almiron suffer hamstring strains late in the season caused by overuse. Fortunately, he was able to return just in time for the MLS Cup run in 2018, but it affected his performance the year prior as Atlanta was knocked out of the playoffs at home by the Columbus Crew.

Gonzalo Pineda’s challenge is to find the sweet spot not just of how many minutes Josef gets through the remaining six games, but when he gets them. Even if Josef could receive more injections and play against a Toronto team with 25 points through 28 games, should he? Can the team withstand his absence against some of these types of matchups? (Atlanta plays Toronto twice and MLS bottom-dwellers Cincinnati once in the next six games.) That’s the calculus Gonzalo Pineda will need to figure out, and it’s important he finds the right answer. He only gets one shot.