Josef Martinez Extends Atlanta Contract, Eschews Chinese Money For ‘My Barcelona’

Atlanta United ain’t going anywhere. 

While there was plenty of chatter around the MLS rumor mill that the 2018 MLS Cup champion might ship off some of its young, exciting talent, the club has shown no signs of letting up after a remarkable first two years in the league.

That much was made evident with a five-year contract extension for Josef Martinez, who shattered the MLS single-season record for goals in 2018. 

Martinez, 25, joined Atlanta United from Torino in Serie A in 2017, ahead of the Five Stripes’ first season. With only middling success abroad, the Venezuelan made an immediate impact in Atlanta, scoring 19 goals in 20 appearances in 2017. 

The next season was just as good as Martinez netted 31 times in 34 matches, breaking a three-way tie for the previous single-season goal-scoring record in MLS. The record had been 27, held by Roy Lassiter (1996), Chris Wondolowski (2012) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (2014). Martinez has averaged 1.04 goals per 90 minutes in MLS matches, which is the highest rate in the history of the league. 

While Atlanta United could have tried to cash in on this impressive run of form, Carlos Bocanegra and Co. opted to tie the prolific forward down for five more years.

Deals of the Josef Martinez contract were not yet made public (they'll eventually come out), but we can assume he received a hefty raise. 

After signing the extension, which will last through 2023, Martinez said everything a fan wants to hear from its star player. He said it wasn’t about money, or he’d have gone to China. He said it wasn’t about fame, because, in his eyes, Atlanta United is every bit as big as Barcelona or Real Madrid. 

“Surely right now in Venezuela, they're saying negative things about me because they have a mediocre mentality; for them, they think I should be playing in Real Madrid,” Martinez said. “For me, this is my Barcelona or my Real Madrid. It's not about me being a star. This team has 11 stars on the field, plus all the substitutes in the team, plus everyone who works here at the club.

“I came from a humble neighborhood, so one dollar more or less isn't going to change who I am. I'm not worried about the money. If I was, I'd go play in China. That's not why I chose here. It's because of the affection and the care that everyone has shown me from both the club and the city. That's what's important.”

That will certainly make new coach Frank de Boer happy to hear from his star man. 

However, there is a bit of dilemma at Atlanta. With the Josef Martinez contract extension, one of the club's three Designated Player spots is tied down for the next five years. The other two DP spots are currently held by 24-year-old Paraguayan Miguel Almiron and 19-year-old Argentine Ezequiel Barco.

The question is, where does that leave Pity Martinez, the 25-year-old River Plate No. 10 who was reportedly leaving his home country for Atlanta United as early as October and as recently as December?

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There has been European interest in Almiron so he could be shipped off to make room for Pity Martinez, but nothing appears imminent as Almiron showed up for the first day of training earlier this week.

“As far as Pity, obviously there’s been tons of rumors out there about it; we have our team set right now,” said Bocanegra, the Atlanta technical director. “Doesn’t mean new players can’t come in or out, so, we have a lot of time for roster compliance until March 1 and in soccer there is always moving pieces and there’s always rumors in the transfer window.”

The Five Stripes keep moving forward, not resting on their laurels after winning the MLS Cup and recording the second-highest points total in MLS history. On Tuesday, Atlanta signed 19-year-old Watford product Dion Pereira, a midfielder.

Atlanta United, by extending the Josef Martinez contract and through other offseason moves, appears ready to defend its title in 2019 and perhaps more, with the Five Stripes qualified for their first Concacaf Champions League. 

So long as de Boer doesn’t implode like he did at Crystal Palace and Inter Milan and is more like the four-time champion he was at Ajax, the rest of the league (and maybe Liga MX) better watch out. 

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