Over the past few years, there have been two versions of Atlanta United: the one with a fit and healthy Josef Martinez, and the one without.
When the Venezuelan striker is at his best, the Five Stripes look like an unstoppable Playoff force with Martinez applying the finishing touches to scintillating play from likes of Luiz Araujo and Marcelino Moreno.
But when he's absent, Atlanta United have often looked lost in the final third. For the most part, they've struggled to seriously replace Martinez's goals when he's not been injured, leading them to miss out on the Playoffs in 2020, creep in on Decision Day last season, and suffer some forgettable runs of form in this campaign.
On Tuesday night, Atlanta United beat Liga MX side Pachuca 3-2 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the first-ever American Family Insurance Cup. It was Martinez who opened the scoring within five minutes, setting up Araujo for a shot that was saved by Oscar Ustari, but only into the path of Martinez who reacted quickest to fire home the rebound.
Though only a friendly, it was Martinez's first goal since March 19, only playing twice in MLS since then due to knee surgery. For head coach Gonzalo Pineda, it's a sign that his star striker is now back to his best and ready to drag Atlanta United back above the Playoff line.
"I remember last year, I was telling you Josef is a warrior, it’s because I was seeing him play in pain. Now he feels much better," Pinda told reporters on Tuesday. "He is again back 100 percent physically, so now he can put this type of performance that was very good not only on the soccer side but also as a leader.
"I think that he was a good captain, he was the guy that was lifting the spirits of the team, pressing and starting the pressure getting inside the box, talking to his players, and making them accountable for things. That is the type of Josef that we all love and we all want. I hope that this type of performance is something to build into the next few games.”
Atlanta United's best effort so far at providing genuine cover for Martinez has been the loan signing of Ronaldo Cisneros from Chivas. The Mexican forward has four goals in eight MLS appearances - including a hat-trick in May's 4-1 win over the Chicago Fire - and has impressed with his off-the-ball movement.
Tuesday night finally saw Cisneros paired up with Martinez; a moment the 25-year-old has been waiting for and hopefully a sign of better things to come in the final third for Atlanta.
"I got to play with Josef and that’s a blessing for me," said Cisneros. "I’ve always said he’s a great player, very intelligent and with a lot of quality, he’s a reference for this club and my teammates who also have a lot of quality and today showed that.
"We created a lot of chances, especially in the first half, and this win gives us confidence against a team like Pachuca that reached the final of Liga MX.”