What has already been a miserable season for Atlanta United got a little bit worse on Wednesday when the club announced the suspension of star striker Josef Martinez.
According to a club statement, the decision was taken due to 'conduct detrimental to the team' from Martinez, who will miss this weekend's match against Toronto FC and is only scheduled to return to team activities on Monday, September 12.
Atlanta United provided no further information beyond the details included in a short press release. However, a report from The Athletic's Felipe Cardenas stated the suspension is the result of an altercation between Martinez and Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda that took place following a 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers on Sunday.
Cardenes reported that Martinez walked into the locker room after the match - in which he came off the bench and scored his side's only goal of the game - and, in frustration, kicked over a catering table. Pineda emerged from a separate room and confronted Martinez, with the pair needing to be physically separated.
First of all, Pineda insisted he and Martinez kept their distance from each other, that things never got physical, but that the striker's conduct was still sufficient to warrant a suspension.
“We were arguing, we were having a discussion, but we were always two-to-three yards away from each other," Pineda told reporters on Thursday. "We did not have a physical altercation.”
He added: “This time we felt it was the right time to take action."
Pineda revealed that it was a collective decision to suspend Martinez, taken between himself, his staff, and members of Atlanta United's front office following numerous on and off-field incidents this season. And though the head coach added that Martinez has not apologized to him personally, Argentine playmaker Thiago Almada revealed that his teammates have received an apology.
The report also revealed that Martinez had refused to take place in certain training drills a few weeks prior to the Portland match in frustration at not starting matches - the Venezuela international has come off the bench in each of Atlanta's last four games, scoring in two of them.
"What is more important, the culture or scoring goals?"
Pineda isn't the first Atlanta United head coach to come to blows with Martinez. Both Gabriel Heinze and Frank de Boer endured tumultuous relationships with the 29-year-old striker, who has often been public with his various frustrations.
But the fact remains that even if he isn't quite his former, pre-ACL injury, self, Martinez remains an elite striker in this league. The Venezuelan has scored an incredible 110 goals in just 154 appearances for Atlanta United across all competitions and is the fastest-ever player to reach 100 goals in combined MLS regular-season and Playoffs competition.
Martinez's goals have led the team to MLS Cup, US Open Cup, and Campeones Cup titles and the striker has been a constant for the club ever since their inaugural 2017 season.
Is that list of achievements enough to warrant excusing such behavior? For Pineda, it's a question of output vs culture with a simple answer.
"I was very clear with him that he's welcome back on Monday," he said. "He's valuable to all of us here, he’s a great player. And I want him back. It's just a matter of what is more important, the culture or scoring goals? And for me, culture. It’s culture over anything.”
Building on his point about the culture he's looking to build around the club, Pineda added: “I was in the Academy the other day and we were telling the kids values that we like: humility, teamwork, and commitment. If I value more the goals than the culture, what is the message to those kids that we all spoke in front of them? I don’t know.”
As he mentioned, Pineda has left the door open for Martinez to return and redeem himself. What's more, the Mexican head coach went out of his way to express his admiration for the striker and all the positives he brings to Atlanta United.
“We’re all human beings, we all have good sides and we all have bad sides," Pineda said. "The good sides of Josef are massive. He’s a great person, I have no doubt about it. He has a great heart. But as anyone else, we all make mistakes.”
He continued: “We still have a good relationship and I can easily talk to him. I have nothing against him.”
The ball is now in Martinez's court and with Atlanta United sitting 11th in the Eastern Conference and six points adrift of the Playoffs with just five games remaining, they need their top goalscorer back onside as soon as possible.
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