It seemed fitting to everyone that when Atlanta United won a penalty, the man sitting on 99 goals for the club would be the one to take the kick.
Well, everyone except the man himself.
“When I grabbed the ball, for a minute I was thinking about giving it to someone else,” striker Josef Martínez said after the match.
The chance came in the 78th minute. A handball called on Miami defender Leandro González Pirez inside the box awarded a penalty kick to Atlanta on the side of the field right in front of the supporters' section. It was there that Martínez got his moment.
“I had a lot of things going through my mind, so I simply just wanted to take the ball and shoot,” Martínez said.
The striker did just that, using his famous stutter-step approach. He struck a solid ball that left no doubt. The goal was his 100th with the club in all competitions and became Atlanta’s game-winner against Inter Miami on Wednesday.
“It was destiny that it had to be Josef with a penalty to score his hundredth goal and help us to win as a team,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said.
With the goal, the club’s all-time leading scorer and 2018 MLS Golden Boot winner added more to his legacy. In his 125th appearance, he became the fastest player in MLS history to score 100 goals for his club.
“I'm happy because it’s not everyday you make 100 goals,” Martinez said. “I want to say thank you to my teammates, the ones that are here and the players that were here before, and everyone working at Atlanta United and also for my city because they mean a lot.”
Martínez came into Wednesday with 99 goals in all competitions, scoring no. 99 in the 64th minute against D.C. United on September 18. The striker missed the match against Philadelphia on September 25 because Pineda didn’t want to put too much on him mentally or physically.
The players were cognizant of Martínez’s chance of making history – and it showed on the field. Every attack seemed to draw eyes toward the Atlanta striker. The team naturally looks to get the ball to its center forward anyway, but tonight Atlanta’s attacking players seemed even more conscious of creating chances for Martínez.
“I felt that the team knew about the 99 goals and that Josef was close, and they were trying to help their friend,” Pineda said.
Martínez got his foot on the ball for a shot a couple of times in the first half that were blocked. First, in the 22nd minute when a ball off a corner kick bounced around in the box, then again in the 26th minute when defender Brooks Lennon left the ball for Martínez right at the top of the box.
Then in the 36th minute, it was just Martínez, Miami goalkeeper Nick Marsman and the net, but the shot skied high.
Martínez came off the pitch in the 89th minute to a roaring applause at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and fans chanting his name.
“Josef is a beloved player in the locker room,” Pineda said.
At training this week, players expressed an eagerness to see the pitch again after a disappointing loss -- and it showed on the field on Wednesday. The attack was sharper, looking more like the team that won three in a row before the lackluster performance in Philadelphia on September 25.
Midfielders found their footing right off the bat in the third minute when Luiz Araújo sent a beautiful through ball to Marcelino Moreno on the right flank. Moreno crossed it across the box to Ezequiel Barco, whose shot went high over the crossbar.
Atlanta took more shots (9) in the first half than it did in the entire match against Philadelphia (6). The team finished the night with 19 shots, seven on goal, and controlled 62 percent of the possession.
"We created enough chances to impact the game earlier,” Pineda said.
The defensive centerbacks had their hands full with Miami’s skillful attacking players that include the two Higuaíns -- Gonzalo and Federico. But the back line, especially in the second half, was effective in locking down their attacks.
Miles Robinson came into the match leading MLS in duel success rate at 69.11, with a minimum 100 duels, and defended well several times. He chased down then blocked a shot on a promising Miami transition in the 14th minute. Later, Robinson was able to regain possession for Atlanta and help his teammate in the 25th minute when Araújo’s pass across the field was intercepted.
Defender Alan Franco returned to the starting lineup after being suspended from the Philadelphia match due to yellow card accumulation. Franco led the team with five interceptions, including a key stop in the 69th minute that slowed down Gonzalo Higuaín.
“It’s nice to have athletic centerbacks who see the game and ultimately put out the fire,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said.
After eight saves, nearly tying a club record, during the last match against Philadelphia, Guzan didn’t record a single save tonight.
Inter Miami finished with seven shots. Atlanta recorded its third clean sheet in five matches.
The win was Atlanta’s first over Inter Miami CF. The club owned an all-time record of 0-2-3 coming into Wednesday. This is the second of three meetings between the teams during the regular season. The last result was a 1-1 draw on May 9 and the teams match up one more time on October 27.
With the win, Atlanta now has 39 points in the Eastern Conference table, enough to put them over the playoff line for the moment.
For the club’s record-setting striker, the three points means just as much as his own league-setting milestone.
“Today was a really important game," Martinez said, "It was also one of the most important days of my life, but it was also very important that we were able to get the win and three very important points."
No moment during tonight's match encapsulates Martínez’s willingness to win more than when the club’s all-time leading scorer came down the field to help defend a corner kick and won the ball.
“What he’s done for us at this club, as a city, in terms of the league, it’s his desire to win,” Guzan said. “And you can’t teach that.”
Highlights: Atlanta United FC vs. Inter Miami CF