MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) — Pity Martinez was surprised when he landed in his new home after an overnight flight from South America.
It was just past 5 o’clock in the morning.
He certainly didn’t expect to be greeted by a hearty group of sleep-deprived Atlanta United fans.
“It was a very nice welcome,” Martinez said. “Just seeing that support gives you the strength to really want to start the season.”
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That will come soon enough.
The South American player of the year was formally unveiled by the reigning MLS Cup champions on Friday, another high-profile move by a team that has quickly become the U.S. league’s flagship franchise.
“I know that Atlanta is a club that’s winning titles,” Martinez said through a translator. “I’m someone who likes to compete for titles. My goal is to get up to speed with the group as fast as I can and help us accomplish all of our goals.”
Martinez is coming off a stellar season in his native Argentina, leading River Plate to a Copa Libertadores championship and a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup.
He’ll be chasing similar goals in Atlanta, which makes its debut in the CONCACAF Champions League next month after winning the MLS title in just its second season.
Carlos Bocanegra, the club’s technical director, said he’s been following Martinez’s career for several years, quickly pegging him as the sort of player who might fit in Atlanta someday.
Bocanegra still remembers the first time he watched Martinez in person, though it required a bit of improvising to get into River Plate’s famed stadium, El Monumental in Buenos Aires. The traffic was so thick that he had to hop out of his car in the middle of the freeway and hop over a barrier to get to inside before kickoff.
Once he was at his seat, Bocanegra was thoroughly impressed.
“You go watch a game at River and the intensity and the pressure and what the fans demand every game from these guys,” Bocanegra said, “you have to take that into account when you come to play for Atlanta.”
United broke its own MLS attendance record last season, averaging 53,002 per game — more than doubling every other team in the league except Seattle and Toronto. Every time the club opened the upper deck at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, more than 70,000 fans turned out.
“That is not lost on us because we play in front of 70,000 people here,” Bocanegra said. “Can they perform on the big stages?”
Martinez’s acquisition required one of the largest transfer fees in MLS history — a reported $14 million — and also will force United to make another personnel move to comply with MLS salary-cap restrictions.
Atlanta already has three designated players who aren’t subject to the cap: MVP Josef Martinez, All-Star Miguel Almiron and 19-year-old Ezequiel Barco. One will have to be go before United opens the league season on March 3.
Bocanegra was coy about the club’s plans. It’s no secret that Almiron wants to move to Europe, but no team has made a formal offer — perhaps scared off by United’s demands for a transfer fee approaching $30 million.
If Almiron is still with the team after the January transfer window expires, and given that Josef Martinez just signed a contract extension through the 2023 season, the most likely backup plan would be to loan out Barco for the season.
“There’s many different things on the table,” Bocanegra said. “We’ll figure stuff out.”
One thing is certain: Pity Martinez will be playing for Atlanta United this season.
“You’re talking about the South American player of the year,” Bocanegra said. “Take a step back and think about that: all the great players who’ve come out of South America and are playing there now. To have someone of Pity’s quality come here and be part of Atlanta United, it’s fantastic for us and it’s fantastic for the group. He’s going to raise the level in training, he’s going to raise the level in the games, and he’s going to raise the level of the team.”
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