When expansion Atlanta United picked up the striker on loan from Torino last season, there was nothing to indicate that he would become a breakout star. In 58 Italian league games over three seasons, he had scored seven goals.
But upon his arrival in the United States, Martinez almost immediately began finding the net, and Atlanta quickly executed its option to buy him permanently for about $5 million. He was limited by two injury spells to 20 games, but he powered in 19 goals. That ranked him fourth in the league, behind three players who played 30 or more games each. His team overachieved as well, making a trip to the playoffs in its inaugural season.
This season, he’s having the opposite of a sophomore slump. Martinez has appeared in all 23 league games for Atlanta and he has kept up the dizzying goal-a-game pace, scoring 24. He towers over the top of the leader board, nine goals ahead of runner-up Zlatan Ibrahimovic of the L.A. Galaxy. He also leads the table with eight game-winning goals.
His six career hat tricks, in a season and a half of play, are already the M.L.S. record. And he is closing in on a more venerable mark. Roy Lassiter scored 27 goals for the now-defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny in 1996. The mark has been matched twice, by Chris Wondolowski in 2012 and Bradley Wright-Phillips in 2014, but never exceeded. Barring injury or a catastrophic loss of form, Martinez should obliterate it.
Martinez has a near William Tell-like accuracy: 65 percent of his shots are on goal, the best rate among the top 10 scorers, most of whom are under 50 percent. He also has a knack for scoring headers, despite being only 5-foot-7, thanks to his leaping ability.
Some of the credit for Martinez’s prolific scoring has gone to Gerardo Martino, the team’s coach. He arrived in Atlanta with a glittering resume that included stints at Barcelona and the Argentine national team, and lived up to it by guiding United to instant success. Perhaps sensing he had a goal scorer on his hands, he also shifted Martinez to center forward.
“Josef came here without really playing much as a center forward before,” he told Univision. “He came here and adapted very well, and that can be seen.”
And Atlanta is exceeding last year’s maiden performance; the team has the best record in the league.
Averaging a goal per game is the Holy Grail for a striker, and is extraordinarily difficult to achieve. It’s never happened in Major League Soccer, and no leading scorer has managed it since the creation of the Premier League. In Spain, the feat has been achieved only by the greats: recently, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi.
Though Martinez is still only 25 he probably won’t ever get to face off against those or other top players in a World Cup. He hails from Venezuela, the rare South American country where baseball is king. It has never made a World Cup and placed 10th of 10 in qualifying for the 2018 event.
You also might not see Martinez in the M.L.S. for long. His scoring has prompted much speculation that he will be bound for a big European team in the near future, though he told SB Nation, “I live in the present. I don’t think about the future. So right now I’m happy in Atlanta.”
If he does go, he may set another record, for largest M.L.S. transfer. Alphonso Davies headed to Bayern Munich last week for $22 million, breaking a decade-old record set by Jozy Altidore.