September 1, 2018 at 7:00 AM
Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez last weekend destroyed one MLS scoring record with two months to spare. He’s poised to shatter another one this weekend.
The only number the Venezuelan forward was concerned with Wednesday during his session with Atlanta reporters was lunchtime.
“Twelve-thirty,” he told them, “because I’m hungry.”
His appetite for goals has eclipsed hunger pangs. Martinez has posted 28, breaking a tie he shared with Roy Lassiter (1996), Chris Wondolowski (2012) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (2014) for the MLS single-season mark. He has scored in nine consecutive matches and, with another goal Sunday night against D.C. United at Audi Field, he’d surpass the milestone set by Portland’s Diego Valeri last year.
In the past eight matches, Martinez has recorded 13 goals, a total that would rank fifth in the league scoring race. Only Portland has held him scoreless since Memorial Day. He has three hat tricks, claimed MVP honors at the All-Star Game and is on pace to win the season’s MVP trophy.
Since Jan. 1, no player in the world, not Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, has scored as many goals in domestic league play as the Atlanta ace.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Martinez, 25, said of personal records. “Those are just numbers. The only thing that matters to me is winning.”
Atlanta has done a lot of that, too. It’s a point behind the New York Red Bulls (but played one fewer match) in the race for the Eastern Conference’s top seed and the Supporters’ Shield, awarded for most points in the league at large. Atlanta (16-4-6) leads MLS in goals (55) and goal difference (plus-25), and sports the best away record (8-2-2).
Paraguayan midfielder Miguel Almiron (nine goals, 11 assists) is the ringleader, but Martinez is the featured act with 47 goals in 46 matches in less than two seasons. He has eight games left this year to grow his record total.
In constructing its expansion roster before the 2017 season, Atlanta acquired him — first on loan, then on permanent transfer for an undisclosed fee — from Torino in Serie A, Italy’s top division. He had scored just seven times in 58 league games there after modest contributions for two Swiss clubs.
For Venezuela’s national team — the only one among 10 in South America’s qualifying history to never participate in the World Cup — Martinez has nine goals in 42 appearances but hasn’t scored since a hat trick against Bolivia in November 2016.
In MLS, he has benefited from both a strong supporting cast and Coach Gerardo Martino’s fast-paced style, one that excels, in particular, on the artificial surface at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. His exploits have reportedly rekindled interest from clubs overseas.
“He is just a pure goal scorer,” said D.C.’s Steve Birnbaum, who, as a center back, will tangle with Martinez throughout the match. “He has a nose for the goal. He’s strong in the box. He stays with the ball and scores scrappy goals. We have to keep track of him, be aware of him, all the time.”
United (7-11-6) lost track of him in the two prior meetings as Martinez scored once in a 3-1 victory in March and posted a hat trick during a 3-1 triumph in July. Both took place in Atlanta.
Asked why Martinez has been able to score against his team, D.C. Coach Ben Olsen said: “He scores against everyone! Everyone is trying to figure out how to contain not just him, but this team.”
Last year, in a three-game sweep of Atlanta, D.C. blanked Martinez in his two appearances (one start, one substitution). United embraced a defensive posture and countered effectively by exploiting Atlanta’s commitment to the attack. United is a more attack-oriented team this season, though, so the task of trying to contain Martinez requires adjustments.
“They play the same way at home, away, up a goal, up two goals — they keep coming at you and they are relentless,” Olsen said. “That leaves space, that leaves opportunity. But it’s very important for us to stay disciplined, and part of that is making sure Martinez doesn’t beat you.”
D.C. United vs. Atlanta United
Where: Audi Field.
When: Sunday, 7:30 p.m.
TV: Fox Sports 1.
Records: D.C. 7-11-6, 27 points; Atlanta 16-4-6, 54 points.
D.C. probable starters: GK Bill Hamid; Ds Oniel Fisher, Kofi Opare, Steve Birnbaum, Joseph Mora; MFs Paul Arriola, Junior Moreno, Russell Canouse, Luciano Acosta, Zoltan Stieber; F Wayne Rooney.
Atlanta probable starters: GK Brad Guzan; Ds Julian Gressel, Michael Parkhurst, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Chris McCann; MFs Jeff Larentowicz, Eric Remedi, Hector Villalba, Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco; F Josef Martinez.