For Josef Martinez, making MLS scoring history is no big deal
We were advised: don't ask Josef Martinez about the goal-scoring record and on the surface, the guidance is sound. The Atlanta United forward has been fielding questions about his frenetic goal-getting pace for the past weeks and months.
However, the talented 25-year-old Venezuelan understands that he is in the midst of a special moment, one others -- if not he himself -- will want to discuss. So he talks about it again, only this time, he offers a window into why this potentially historic moment is not yet a big deal to him.
"I always want to score," said Martinez in a telephone interview with ESPN FC. "A forward always wants to score goals, and if they tell you otherwise, they're lying."
It bears reminding that through his first 25 games this season, Martinez has scored a ridiculous 27 times, matching the full-season record previously shared by Roy Lassiter, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Chris Wondolowski.
Atlanta has nine matches remaining on its schedule including the upcoming Rivalry Week clash on Friday night against Orlando City (8:00 ET, ESPN/ESPN Deportes). Therefore, barring an injury, suspension or drought of massive proportions, the South American is primed to claim sole possession of the record and push it into loftier territory.
Martinez is obviously aware of all this, as well as the very high possibility of his entering the history books after a spectacular run of play rarely (if ever) seen in North American club soccer. Nonetheless, in his second MLS season, his focus remains unchanged.
"Listen: a record is not something that happens every day, I know that. But one day, everything can go in -- the next, not so much. I want people to remember me, to remember us, for winning," he said.
After a stunning inaugural regular season in 2017, Atlanta finished fourth in a stacked Eastern Conference featuring eventual MLS Cup champion Toronto FC. Had they played in the West, they would have earned an automatic bye into the conference semifinals instead of the knockout-round spot they ultimately received.
Despite being picked by many to go far in the postseason, Atlanta dropped a penalty shootout to the Columbus Crew at home, with Martinez watching from afar after being subbed out before the second extra-time period expired. That loss has lingered in his memory.
"I prefer winning [MLS Cup] than any personal trophy," he said. "My motivation is winning the league."
This year, thanks to Martinez's copious scoring and a stacked roster, coached by former Barcelona and Argentina boss Gerardo "Tata" Martino, Atlanta sits atop the Eastern Conference, three points clear of the New York Red Bulls. Although its next opponent, Orlando City, has been all but erased from the playoff picture (its 23 points are good for 10th in the East), Friday's match seems a perfect opportunity to play spoiler to a more successful rival. The match is sure to light a fire on both sides, but Martinez remains especially calm about the fixture, with his mind set on the bigger picture.
"Personally, I don't get any extra motivation from Orlando or any other club for that matter," said Martinez. "I mean, even if you're facing Real Madrid or Barcelona, you have to go out with the intention of winning. It's like any other game."
For all his sustained personal and collective success since arriving in Atlanta, Martinez is especially effusive of Martino. "You learn something new from Tata every day. I try to soak up as much as I can from him. He always has an interesting way of thinking about the game, about what [his players] should do. When someone of his status and experience is talking, you listen."
Martino's interesting way of thinking about Martinez, before he signed with Atlanta United from Torino in early 2017, was turning the player from an attacking midfielder or supporting striker into a full-fledged No. 9.
"When they talked to me about bringing [Josef] on, my response was immediately positive," Martino told ESPN FC. "My memory of watching him play in the Copa America Centenario was very fresh, and I thought that instead of having him play behind the forward like he did with his national team, he was strong enough and smart enough to occupy spaces in the box."
To be supremely obvious, the Argentine manager's gambit has paid off. In less than two full seasons in MLS, Martinez has bagged 46 regular-season goals, an impressive clip buoyed by the monstrous numbers he has put up in 2018. Going into the match against Orlando, he has scored in his past eight MLS games, notching three braces and one hat trick during that run.
Martinez's goals have enthralled the already intense Atlanta United fan base, one of MLS' strongest and a big reason the Venezuelan feels so at home in the American south.
"It's not the same to play in front of 2,000 people as opposed to 45,000 or 70,000, that's for sure," he said. "The fans here make me feel special. Very few clubs around the world have fans like these. I've been here almost two years, and I absolutely love it. This is home for me now."
The immense backing has impressed Martino as well, who singled out the fans as a reason his players and staff have performed so well since the club's inception. "The interest that Atlanta United generates [in the community] is so large, that we always feel the warmth and support from them all through the week. It all makes Josef and the rest of the team truly enamored with living and working in the city."
That cohesion between the franchise and community, as well as the consistent success enjoyed this season, has Martinez and Martino thinking big. For the striker, the objective is clear: Win the league and push his team into the international spotlight within CONCACAF.
"Winning MLS Cup is the first step," said Martinez. "Then I would love to play the CONCACAF Champions League. For me, it's an important international tournament like the Copa Libertadores or the UEFA Champions League."
When pressed about the heartbreaking history of his league's teams in the competition, Martinez makes it clear: He cares only about Atlanta United.
"To tell you the truth, I don't like to watch soccer," he said, laughing. "I only watch Venezuela, Real Madrid or Barcelona."
It makes sense now to believe him when he offers a canned response regarding putting club over individual performance or about how he doesn't care about a personal milestone that is so close he can taste it. "Listen, outside the pitch, I have my family, I have a life. I'm not thinking about soccer."
Don't ask Martinez about the scoring record. But if you do, you might just understand why it's not that big of a deal to him.