Josef Martinez choked up a bit when he saw his grandparents in the front row. On most days, he’s not susceptible to tears. This time, he couldn’t help himself. A teary eyed Martinez claimed the MVP award from Major League Soccer on Wednesday after shattering the record for goals in a season and leading Atlanta United to the championship game.
While he normally speaks through a translator, the 25-year-old Venezuelan gave the first part of his acceptance speech in English.
“This is a special day for me, for my family, for my teammates, for the city,” Martinez said, without the benefit of notes. “I want to say thank you to the fans for the amazing support this year.”
In just two years, Atlanta United has established itself as a flagship franchise in MLS, setting numerous attendance records and achieving immediate success on the field with a high-scoring, attacking style spearheaded by its 25-year-old Venezuelan striker.
Another record crowd of more than 70,000 is expected for Saturday night’s MLS Cup final against the Portland Timbers.
Martinez already claimed the Golden Boot for scoring 31 goals in 34 games this season, breaking the MLS mark of 27 shared by Roy Lassiter, Chris Wondolowski and Bradley Wright-Phillips.
“He wears his heart on his sleeve,” United president Darren Eales said. “You can see it in his hunger for goals. That drive is part of his skill set.”
Martinez joins a very select club in Atlanta. During the ceremony, he received video congratulations from the city’s other MVPs _ retired baseball stars Chipper Jones, Dale Murphy and Terry Pendleton of the Braves, as well as quarterback Matt Ryan of the NFL Falcons.
Martinez credited his teammates for giving him plenty of scoring chances, including fellow MVP finalist Miguel Almiron.
“I wish I could cut this trophy up and give them each a part of it,” Martinez said, speaking after the ceremony through a translator.
The other finalists for the Landon Donovan trophy were Zlatan Ibrahimovic of the Los Angeles Galaxy, Wayne Rooney of D.C. United and Carlos Vela of Los Angeles FC, all of whom joined MLS this season with glittering resumes.
Martinez, on the other hand, failed to make much of an impact after getting his first big chance with Torino in Italy’s Serie A, scoring just seven goals in 58 league appearances.
But when Eales was building United’s roster, he got a good recommendation on Martinez from a Torino teammate, English goalkeeper Joe Hart.
Eales read some of the texts he got from Hart during the MVP ceremony, which was held at the opulent offices of Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank.
“Martinez is a really good guy,” Hart wrote. “Big, friendly personality on and off the pitch. Dangerous player with energy. Heads the ball well for a small guy. He would be a good signing.”
While Martinez has scored plenty of goals with both feet, his ability in the air is what makes him special.
It’s even more impressive given his size.
“His aerial ability is incredible for such a small chap,” Eales said. “Our media guide says he’s 5-foot-7. That’s must have been when he was wearing the extra-long studs in his boots, because I’m not sure that’s quite exactly correct.”
Martinez has added three goals in the playoffs, helping Atlanta knock off Supporters’ Shield winner New York Red Bulls for the Eastern Conference title.
He’s eager to add one more trophy to his collection.
“We want to be champions,” Martinez said. “We’ve been working two seasons for this opportunity. We don’t want to let it slip away.”
After initially coming to Atlanta on loan, he made an immediate impact with the MLS expansion team in 2017. He scored 19 goals in 20 league games and might’ve broken the scoring record if not for a quadriceps injury that kept him out for two months. He was hurt while playing for the Venezuelan national team.
Atlanta coach Tata Martino came into this season with high expectations for the diminutive striker.
“When I rejoined the team in February, there was a meeting between myself and Tata,” Martinez recalled. “Tata told me all I have to do is find space and I could score 30 goals in a season. At the time, I didn’t believe him. Sometimes people say things, but you don’t expect it to come true. Thanks to everyone, I was able to do it.”
Martino will be coaching his final game with Atlanta in the MLS Cup. He is expected to take over as Mexico’s national coach.
“I just wish him the best wherever he goes,” Martinez said. “Maybe we’ll reconnect in the future.”
Martinez said he keeps his Golden Boot trophy on a table at his home, surrounded by game balls.
When asked what he plans to do with the MVP award, he couldn’t resist having some fun.
“I’m going to put it on top of my car,” he joked, “so when I leave my house, everybody can see it every day.”