It was the perfect moment.
Consider the journey that led to it: At the center, a strong, battle-tested hero. He’d answered the call, crossed the threshold and embarked on the path of destiny laid out before him. He’d faced every test and every trial, met allies and made enemies along the way. He fought his way to the top of the mountain. Achievements adorned him – trophies and glory. He became the best at what he does, a model of strength, stamina and skill.
Then, the warrior fell. From the highest peak into an abyss. Inside the darkness, his innermost demons surfaced. He had no choice but to work. And so he did. He met his crisis. He went through his labors. Time passed and he emerged from the low and lonely cave – the same man but transformed.
He returned to the field his feet had stood tens of thousands of times before. The arena surrounding him filled with people hailing him a hero. Before him, the opportunity to seize the sword and master his own legacy – the chance to slay his Minotaur.
The moment had all the makings of an epic return to glory. But the hero at the center spot had other ideas.
“I really wanted the 100th goal to come,” he said. “But not like this.”
It was September 29. Atlanta United faced Inter Miami at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in a hard-fought conference matchup.
Josef Martínez was nervous.
Atlanta’s all-time leading scorer entered the match knowing he was one shy of 100 goals scored for the club in all competitions.
And he knew the next one may be the most difficult to get.
“As you’re getting closer to your goal, it becomes harder for you,” Martínez said.
The game went back and forth, but Atlanta showed clear control. It possessed over 60 percent of the ball and took a dozen more shots. As the team’s true no. 9, Martínez was always a natural target for the team’s attack. But on that night, his teammates seemed especially set on finding Martínez and building chances for him to score.
Martínez had a shot early. It was blocked. Then another. As the game went on, the anticipation built. The second half arrived without seeing him score. More urgency, more uncertainty. Soon, it began to feel like it may not be the right time for Martínez to make history.
That all changed in the 78th minute.
Miami defender Leandro González Pirez committed a handball inside the box. Atlanta was awarded a penalty kick right in front of the home supporters’ section.
Teammates handed the ball to their leader, the club’s leading scorer, the man of the night, the face of the franchise, the striker who sat on 99 goals.
It could be no one’s moment but his.
Under normal circumstances, Martínez would want the ball too. But this game, he felt different.
“I think this is one of the few times in my life that I did not want to take a PK,” he said.
Surrounding him was a city that loved him, that for years has called for a statue to be built in his honor. The fans were aware of what was at stake. The noise, the crowd, the atmosphere. Martínez didn’t want to let his people down:
“For some reason it is hard for me to take a penalty at home, in front of all of those people, our screaming fans, and especially because of the moment in the game, tied 0-0 and with the match almost coming to an end.”
But like so many times before, Martínez stepped up. He met the moment – if not for himself, then for the team. With the last two months of the season approaching, Atlanta needed the win to keep its playoff hopes alive. It needed a goal.
The warrior’s will to win triumphed over personal achievement.
“I had a lot of things in my head and I just wanted to take the PK, just kick the ball to see what happened. “
The striker did just that. He struck the ball using the signature stutter step approach that has made him one of the most dangerous penalty kick takers in MLS.
The goalkeeper dove right. The shot went to his left.
Horns blared. Torches lit up. The halo board at Mercedes-Benz Stadium displayed “100 Goals.” Martínez trotted toward the sideline behind the goal. He was handed a commemorative jersey with the number 100 stamped in gold. Teammates, from the pitch and the bench, swarmed to congratulate him.
Martínez turned toward the fans. Just behind them was the large window that showed the Atlanta cityscape. With one look, he saw it all. The city he loves, the fans who love him in return.
He put his hand over his heart.
Originally from Valencia, Venezuela, Martínez never imagined he’d end up in the city of Atlanta. He never would’ve guessed he’d become one of the city’s most successful athletes. He never presumed he’d score 100 goals in front of 42,519 fans.
But he’s glad it happened here.
“I think the best decision was to come to a place where they love me, or where you feel you’re loved. And if that is outside of the country even better. Not everybody has that same possibility, not everybody has the same blessing of having what I have. But you need to be at a place where you feel happy, and that is what I have right now. I’m happy here,” he said.
The city of Atlanta makes him happy. That’s why he hesitated to take the penalty kick against Miami. He didn’t want to fail in front of his fans.
But he also wished he could’ve given no. 100 to them sooner.
“I would have loved to score the 100th goal against D.C. United after I had that 99,” Martínez said.
Two games prior on Sept. 18 against D.C., there were a few chances when Martínez got extremely close. He scored no. 99 in the 64th minute on a through ball from midfielder Ezequiel Barco. After that, it seemed like there was enough time left in the match for him to score another. It almost happened in the 84th minute on a header from a cross sent in by defender George Bello. Then again in the 90th.
But time ran out. His 100th goal for Atlanta United didn’t happen that day.
Martínez would miss the team’s next match in Philadelphia. So, the next chance for him to make history came against Miami. And the 11 days in between playing only ramped up his nerves.
“To be honest I wasn’t feeling quite well before the match because the games before that I was strong I was fast, but it wasn’t feeling too good coming into this match. I had to stop for a week and that makes it harder for me now to get back on track,” Martínez said.
Martínez is one of the most successful scorers in MLS history. In 2018, he won the Golden Boot, the award given to the league's scoring leader. That year, he broke the single-season goal record and finished with 31 regular season goals. At 125 appearances, he became the fastest player in league history to score 100 goals for one club.
If you ask Martínez if he thought he’d ever get to this point, the striker isn’t so sure.
“Six months ago I didn’t think this would be possible again,” he said.
Six months ago, Martínez was recovering from a serious injury he sustained on March 2, 2020 in the regular season opener for Atlanta United. During the match, Martínez took an awkward step going in for a tackle against Nashville.
He went down immediately, grasping at his right leg and pointing to a specific location where the ligaments are in his knee. Medics placed Martínez on a stretcher and carried him off the field. Later, doctors confirmed he tore the ACL in his right knee.
He underwent surgery two weeks later at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Afterward, there were complications. He battled infection, delaying his recovery. The challenges he faced during rehabilitation made him think he may never be able to play soccer again.
Meanwhile, his club missed him. Atlanta struggled to score in 2020 and finished next to last in the league in goals. As a result, Atlanta missed the playoffs for the first time since its inaugural season in 2017.
Martínez reset. He rehabbed. And he’s been making his way back ever since.
He returned to Atlanta United in 2021. He made his first appearance on the pitch in over a year on April 6 in Concacaf Champions League competition.
Although he returned to playing, he wouldn’t say the form he had in 2018 or 2019 remained. He fluctuated between feeling like his old self and dealing with the physical ramifications of serious injury.
“Yes and no,” Martínez said when asked if he feels back from his injury. “If you had asked me this question a week ago I would’ve said yes, but having to stop for a whole week really takes a toll on me. When I have to stop for two days, it’s hard. Now, when I have to stop playing for a week it’s even harder. But I do feel very close to being officially back.”
The injury reoriented Martínez’s approach to his physical form. Now, he’s careful with his knee, making sure it receives treatment and rest. He communicates often with head coach Gonzalo Pineda so together they make decisions on his playing time, to make sure he isn’t overloaded mentally or physically.
“My health and my body are so important,” Martínez said.
After scoring his 100th goal, Martínez thanked his teammates, both current and former. He thanked his coaches. He thanked the entire staff at Atlanta United. On a night he was lauded and glorified, he answered with appreciation and grace for everyone who came along.
In the postgame press conference, he was asked if he could’ve ever imagined getting to this point. He paused, fighting back tears. The question made him emotional.
While he was recovering, he got a glimpse of a different kind of life, a life without soccer. He saw what his days would look like when he was no longer a famous soccer player at the apex of his career. Luxury, attention and fame were no longer part of his lifestyle.
“We the players live in a bubble,” he said. “We are kind of untouchable in a way. We need the water to be fixed, we call someone; we need to buy some shoes, we call someone; can you tell me the home Wi-Fi, the car needs to be fixed, anything.”
He described the experience as isolating and lonely.
“Nobody talked about me, nobody from Venezuela called me, many teammates or coaches never called me,” he said.
He spent his days suffering and thinking. He compared his life to retirement. At just 26 years old, the actuality of retirement was still far away, so he turned to friends like his former teammates Michael Parkhurst and Greg Garza to help him understand.
“I ask them how they feel after being retired. They always say it’s not the same. And I reflect on them because I know that’s what’s going to happen to me as well. After you’re done with being a soccer player, you become a normal person again,” he said.
For one of the most recognizable athletes in Atlanta, becoming a normal person was a dramatic shift. And it was a heavy-handed dose of reality for the man who had reached the peak of MLS. But it made him appreciate the time he has so much more.
“But when you come back to play then everybody loves you. When you are not well, nobody loves you. But when you are well then everybody is your friend,” he said.
Another reason Martínez got emotional during the press conference was grief. One of the people responsible for Martinez’s return was Dr. Freddie Fu, who was on Martínez’s team at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Fu was an orthopedic surgeon, beloved for his generosity and ingenuity and renowned for his innovation.
Fu passed away on Sept. 24, just five days before Atlanta’s match against Miami.
“I lost a friend a few months ago and that hit me very hard. To see a person so healthy lose their life was very hard and it made me realize that you need to enjoy life to its full potential,” he said.
While the road to recovery was long and difficult, the striker feels close to being back. The experience changed his perspective, but didn’t change his winning mentality.
“I know the struggles he went through with the injury probably more than you guys know,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan after the Miami match. “To see the ability to come back from that. He may say the same thing later, he’s probably not all the way the same Josef as he was before the injury, but again it’s a credit to his willingness to want to win, his willingness and desire to help the team be successful in whatever way possible. He finds a way and that’s a sign of a winner.”
Martínez has earned the respect of his teammates. And he’s already earned the respect of his new head coach.
“Josef is a warrior,” Pineda said.
Despite the injury, Martínez hasn’t lost his finishing touch. He currently leads the club in goals this season (10) and is averaging one goal every two matches -- and that’s with only 15 starts and 1360 minutes played.
And there’s certainly more to come in his career. Although he may never reach the same form he had in 2018 or 2019, the striker is just 28 years old. He’s already set new goals for himself. He wants to get 100 goals for the club in MLS competitions (he’s currently at 87). He even floated the idea of striving to score 200 goals for one club, something no player has ever done in MLS.
The injury transformed Martínez, the commanding scorer. It changed his mindset and brought a new perspective.
“I don’t know if it’s sweeter or not, but what I know is that it’s beautiful,” Martínez said. “I said before I didn’t want to play soccer anymore. And to see what has happened over the past six months, or maybe a bit more, it’s beautiful and it’s tough.”
Whether it happened the way he wanted to or not, scoring 100 goals for one club has made Martínez a legend. He faced challenges to reach this point, he went through pain and grief. But he endured it all for so much more than himself. He did it for the game, for his club, for his fans, for his city.
And that’s why this hero wears a crown.