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Gabriel Heinze vs. Josef Martinez: How did we get here and what does the solution look like?

This latest drama has the highest of stakes.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Orlando City SC Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United is no stranger to drama. It seems like every year since 2018 there’s been at least one big juicy controversy surrounding the club. Whether it was Ezequiel Barco’s overtures or Pity Martinez vs. Frank de Boer or Atlanta United’s mysterious injury disclosing policy, the club has basically turned into a reality show disguised as a soccer team. However, the latest drama to arise is undoubtedly the most high profile, as it comes with the highest stakes the club has ever seen.

In the blink of an eye, we have a stand-off between the club’s star player and its head coach. It’s a situation that hardly seemed possible just days ago.

In one corner you have the undisputed face of the franchise. Former MVP and Golden Boot winner, Mr. Atlanta United himself, Josef Martinez. In the opposing corner, first-year world-famous manager, Gabriel Heinze. The situation doesn’t seem to have an easy or timely resolution coming. Before we assess what might happen to resolve this mess, we must first look back.

How did we get here?

Heinze was the one chosen by Atlanta United to pioneer the club’s rebuild. After the utter embarrassment that was 2020, the club sorely needed a new direction. Enter an up-and-coming Argentine manager with both coaching and playing pedigree.

His relationship with Josef never seemed out of the ordinary for the most part. Almost all questions about the striker aimed towards Heinze were related to his recovery from ACL surgery. There were never any worrying quotes when the manager spoke of his most important player. The responses were typically boilerplate and exactly what you’d expect.

Josef’s comeback was a work in progress. He was steadily seeing the field after predictably being eased into the fold. By the time the Copa America arrived Josef was back to being the first name on the teamsheet and everything seemed to be on track.

While on international duty, the Venezuelan tested positive for the coronavirus despite being vaccinated. That caused him to miss all of Copa America, leaving him having last played a competitive minute on May 29 in a 2-2 draw at home against Nashville SC. Upon his arrival back at Atlanta, everything still seemed fine until the team’s first match approached. It was reported that Josef was training individually because of fitness issues.

After a week off, the media once again got the chance to speak with Heinze where he let the cat out of the bag. He confirmed that Josef was still training by himself, and that it was his decision to take that course of action.

“I have my reasons and I’m very clear on those reasons,” Heinze told media Thursday.

The move, in fact, had nothing to do with his fitness, even though Heinze wouldn’t go into specifics as to what the disagreement was.

“He doesn’t have any kind of fitness problem. It’s my decision that he train away from the team,” Heinze said. “He’ll continue to train on his own.”

The Stakes

Here we are with what seems like another untenable situation with two parties who have a reputation for big egos and even bigger tempers. We all know Josef Martinez’s penchant for wearing his emotions on his sleeve and never backing down from a challenge. Then you have Heinze who has been described as “most Bielsista of the new Bielsista’s”. We haven’t really seen much of Bielsa bleeding through on the field, perhaps those characteristics are more engrained in his personality than his tactics. If that’s the case, it could spell real trouble as Bielsa is notorious for being a “my way or the highway” type of personality wherever he has been.

The brashness of this particular decision is evident when considering the circumstances the team finds itself in at this point in the season. Atlanta United is missing a double-digit amount of players for various reasons during a busy portion of the season. The team needs all the help on the field it can get, yet still Heinze believes Josef freaking Martinez must not participate.

It’s hard to imagine a feud between two incredibly fiery figures magically coming to a peaceful resolution if the disagreement has lasted this long already. Could this put the front office in the almost impossible position of choosing between their star striker or the man they chose to lead their revival?

How can this be resolved?

In an ideal world both parties could agree to put the disagreement, whatever it may be, behind them and agree the best thing for everyone is to work together. As much as we’d like to see that happen, sometimes you have to face reality that life isn’t that easy. If Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra end up having to step in and choose a side it could get extremely messy. While Heinze was a universally praised hire, he’s done very little to justify the hype so far and it only seems to be getting more worrisome by the day. While no player is bigger than the club, Josef is as close as it can possibly get. Unless he’s done something so egregious to rightfully be put on the sidelines, there’s just not many excuses to banish the the guy the team sent out literal statues of as season ticket holder gifts.

Unfortunately for us, there’s just not enough information on the disagreement to fully assess the merits. However, unless Josef Martinez has done something inexplicable to cause Heinze this much consternation, cooler heads must prevail in a hurry or drastic actions could be required.