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Josef Martinez’s unlikely MLS redemption after failing to make the grade in Europe

The Venezuelan finished the MLS season with a record 35 strikes for Atlanta United

MLS isn’t proper football, discuss.

Two decades ago it could be argued that the American league was farcical, what with their dodgy penalty shootouts and strange team names.

But with the influx of modern superstars over the last 10 years and the increased interest in what’s happening across the pond everyone has started to take it a little bit more seriously.


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OK they still do weird things like this

USA TODAY Sports
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OK they still do weird things like this

The arrival of David Beckham took MLS mainstream, David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic following suit made it cool, but these days its reputation as more than a retirement home for European stars is growing.

Atlanta United may have only been born into existence two years ago but in Josef Martinez they have one of most prolific Designated Players (think imported superstars) to ever grace the league.

The Venezuelan arrived in the States after an unsuccessful mini-tour around Europe’s less glamorous spots and it has allowed him mid-career redemption.

Sink it

USA TODAY Sports
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Sink it

At 25 years old, Martinez used this season to show that he still has more to give than we have seen in his career so far. Much more.

Atlanta’s hitman scored a record 35 goals – 31 in the regular season, before chipping in with four in the play-offs.

While all the attention from Europe was on Wayne Rooney’s ridiculous exploits for D.C United and Zlatan Ibrahimovic karate kicking the ball into the back of the net for LA Galaxy, Martinez was ripping sides apart for fun.

He scored three hat-tricks, including one against Rooney’s D.C., and backed it up with five braces across the season.

The new robot

AP:Associated Press
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The new robot

But it didn’t always look like he would reach these heights.

After graduating at Caracas Martinez got his big break to Europe when in 2012, only instead of one of the heavyweights from a top five league he moved to Swiss side Young Boys.

He spent two years on the Swiss riviera, during which he scored four goals in 37 league games for the club as well as earning a call-up to the national side.

In his second year he went on loan to Thun and we were given a sneak peek of what he was capable of when he hit eight in 18 to briefly hit the top of the Swiss scoring charts.

However it would be a few years before we got another taste of Martinez the dangerous marksman.

Any kit made by Jako should be burned immediately

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Any kit made by Jako should be burned immediately

Unfortunately for Martinez, after only managing three league goals in his first season, when Andrea Belotti burst onto the scene at torino he fell down the pecking order.

The following two seasons he made 31 league appearances in total as his more glamorous and youthful colleague scored a total of 38 league goals.

It was time for something drastic.

Martinez decided to end his European sojourn early and go to MLS in hope that he could fulfil his potential as a decent striker.

He didn’t fare much better in Italy

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He didn’t fare much better in Italy

The Swiss division and Serie A may have been a couple of steps too high on the world football pyramid but MLS offered Martinez a chance to show exactly what he could do.

And he grabbed that chance from the very beginning.

In just his second week at the club he scored his first career hat-trick and the first hat-trick in Atlanta United’s history in a 6-1 demolition of Minnesota.

Within a month Atlanta had activated the buyout clause on his loan move and he was named MLS Player of the Month after five goals in three games.

No look penalties. Tick.

AP:Associated Press
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No look penalties. Tick.

The Venezuelan finished last season with a respectable 19 goals and a spot in the MLS Best XI, and if you thought that was impressive just wait to see what he managed this term.

His goalscoring exploits saw him become an MLS superstar.

To put his strike rate into context, Martinez 19 scored more goals in his two seasons at Atlanta than he has in the rest of his career.

Martinez became the first player to be named the regular season and play-off MVP and he lifted the MLS Cup Championship with Atlanta in their second year.

Proof of his burgeoning reputation was that he came third only behind Carlos Vela and Ibra when it came to shirt sales this year.

Now people are talking about Martinez again.

Like Sebastian Giovinco, who arrived in the US aged 28, Martinez has used MLS as an opportunity to revive his career.

In normal circumstances we could see it becoming a springboard to another big European move, but nowadays MLS has its own pulling power.

Giovinco never returned to Europe and the 5ft4in attacker can still be found turning defenders inside out at Toronto.

So will Martinez live out his days with one of the best-supported clubs in America as a superstar or have one more crack at making it in the top five leagues?


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