Atlanta United releases Josef Martínez as he joins Miami

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 08: Josef Martinez #7 of Atlanta United reacts as he leaves the pitch against the Portland Timbers during the 2018 MLS Cup between Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 8, 2018 in Atlanta,

The face of the Five Stripes for the last six seasons has been released.

Striker Josef Martínez, with Atlanta United since the club's inaugural season in 2017, will join Inter Miami CF in a corresponding move.

Atlanta United announced the club used its offseason buyout on Martínez's budget charge, and he will no longer occupy a designated player spot on its roster. 

Inter Miami CF will retain a portion of Martínez’s guaranteed contract on its 2023 club salary budget.

"Obviously, it was difficult for us as well. You know, Josef is beloved at the club," Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said via Zoom. "We understand that the fan base, the city (love him). He's been excellent for us since 2017, coming here and you know what he's done: MVP season, helped us win a title. So it was a difficult decision for us as well. We know how much he loves and what he means to the city of Atlanta."

The fan favorite had complicated relationships with the club's most recent two managers, Gabriel Heinze and Gonzalo Pineda. This past season, Pineda and Heinze reportedly engaged in a shouting match following a loss in Portland, which resulted in a week-long suspension of Martínez. Neither declined to go into further detail regarding the altercation.

Fans always loved Martínez's emotional, heart-on-his-sleeve style and passion on the pitch.

He became the fastest player in MLS history to score 100 goals in all competitions, reaching the mark in just 125 games.

In total, Martínez scored 111 goals across all competitions with Atlanta.

With that kind of career so far, the interest in Martínez league-wide was far and wide, Bocanegra said.

"Did we have interest in him? Yeah. I mean, a lot of people called and asked about what's the situation, what's happening," he told media via Zoom on Wednesday. "You can imagine a guy that scored over a hundred goals in MLS, there's going to be some interest and then people asking what's going on? But ultimately we were able to to find the solution in Miami, and that seems to be the outcome that was best."

HARRISON, NJ - JUNE 30: Josef Martínez #7 of Atlanta United reacts to the goal by Serge Ngoma #22 of New York Red Bulls in the second half of the Major League Soccer match at Red Bull Arena on June 30, 2022 in Harrison, New Jersey. (Photo by Ira L. B

The Venezuelan had a record-breaking campaign in 2018 in which he became the first MLS player to win MLS All-Star, Regular Season and MLS Cup MVP honors in the same season. The Venezuelan striker scored 31 goals in 2018 to win MLS’ Golden Boot, then-breaking the league’s regular season scoring record of 27. He added four goals during the MLS Cup Playoffs to break the league’s combined scoring record with 35 goals and deliver Atlanta its first MLS Cup title.

"Since his arrival in 2017, Josef Martínez has poured his heart and soul into Atlanta United," team owner Arthur Blank said in a statement. "We experienced a lot of firsts together – Atlanta United’s inaugural year, Josef’s first MLS season, a number of record-setting performances and, of course, an MLS championship together. Josef is a one-of-a kind, iconic athlete, and I’m grateful to him and his family for taking a chance on Atlanta and growing with us. He is one the most decorated MLS players of all time and has made Atlanta, and the entire league proud, while also representing his beautiful country of Venezuela with pride. I know Josef will continue to shine as he heads to the next stop on his professional journey. I’m grateful for the time we’ve had with him, and I know I speak for all the dedicated 17s when I say ‘thank you Josef.’ He is a cherished member of our Atlanta United family."

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 08: Josef Martinez #7 of Atlanta United celebrates with the MLS Cup after their 2-0 win over the Portland Timbers during the 2018 MLS Cup between Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 8, 2 (Getty Images)

Martínez followed his historic 2018 season by scoring in an MLS-record 15 consecutive matches from May 24 to Sept. 18 and holds the record for most goals scored in a three-season span in MLS history with 77 from 2017 to 2019. Martínez joined elite MLS company by becoming just the seventh player to record three consecutive 15+ goal seasons.

He also holds the league’s all-time hat trick record with six and single-season mark with three.

After suffering a torn ACL in the 2020 MLS season-opener that forced him to miss the entire year, Martínez returned in 2021 to score a team-high 12 goals in 24 appearances, 18 starts. 

Last year, Martínez started the season with two goals and two assists in the first five games, but was forced to miss two months after having arthroscopic knee surgery in April. He finished the season with nine goals and added four assists in 26 appearances, 12 starts. 

Bocanegra recalled a conversation foreshadowing the club parting ways with its star striker, which happened over cigars in his backyard in 2020 after Martínez tore his ACL.

"(We were) just chatting about it, at some point this day will come. But that's professional sports, and we're going to part our ways and you know, unfortunately the time is now this chapter is since closed," Bocanegra said Wednesday. "But it was really just about respect and it was how do we find a solution for you that works? And he's going to be happy. Obviously, he had the no trade clause in his contract as well, so it's not like the other trades within the MLS where you can make a trade or the other major sports. So we worked together and in the end, you know, with ownership's backing, we're helping take care of some of that cost as you guys saw and he's in a he landed in a place where he's got family and comfortable. And it seems to be the best of the situation, the best outcome that we have in the situation."

As for who will step up in Martínez's wake?

Bocanegra said there will be no "replacement."

"What we're not going to be able to do is replace the 2017 Joseph Martínez that came in here," Bocanegra said. "So I don't want to put extra expectations on the next forward that we bring in. But obviously we're going to go look to get an impact player that can come in and lead the line and score goals and help our team."

Atlanta United faces Inter Miami FC twice in 2023, with the first match being played in Miami on May 6, and the second at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 16.

Bocanegra admitted Martínez's departure to a MLS rival was "not ideal."

"That was discussed quite a bit. It's definitely not a place we would have preferred him to go, an in-conference rivals. They are a very ambitious club. So yeah, that really was not an ideal situation for us, but in the end, again look, I think maybe it could have been really nasty in this situation on our side and just kind of held out, held out, held out and not done something like that. Josef means a lot to the club," he said. "We wanted to try and find a solution for Josef. It hurts a little bit on our end. I'm sure it hurts on his end a little bit too, but trying to find a good outcome for everybody. So no, it's really not ideal. He's going to a rival, but we've got to get on with it now and we wish Josef the best. Obviously, we don't want to do fantastic against us, but he's a great kid. We want him to go on and continue to have a long career. He's got a lot left in the tank."