Pity Martinez off to brilliant start in Year 2 with Atlanta

Atlanta United's Gonzalo Martinez thanks the crowd after scoring during the first half against Motagua during a CONCACAF Champions League soccer match Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Kennesaw, Ga. (John Amis/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

By PAUL NEWBERRY

AP Sports Writer

KENNESAW, Ga. (AP) Pity Martinez seemed to be everywhere.

He scored off a nifty back-heeled flick. He launched a pinpoint pass to set up another goal. He swooped in to find the net one more time with the keeper out of position.

After a disappointing debut season with Atlanta United, Martinez showed off the tantalizing skills that made him the South American player of the year and could take him to stardom in Major League Soccer.

Martinez scored two goals and assisted on another Tuesday night to lead Atlanta to a 3-0 victory over Honduran club Motagua, giving United a 4-1 aggregate victory in the opening round of the CONCACAF Champions League.

"This is the version of Pity that you want to see,” Martinez said through an interpreter. “It's a Pity who is feeling confident and comfortable. This is the version that all of you guys wanted to see.”

Martinez also assisted on United's lone goal in the opening leg of the series, a 1-1 road draw that put the team in good position heading back home for the return leg.

Atlanta opens the MLS season Saturday night at expansion team Nashville SC.

“I'm feeling very comfortable and in a good place right now,” he said.

Martinez arrived in Atlanta to great fanfare after leading Argentina's River Plate to the Copa Libertadores title in 2018. United doled out a huge transfer fee, reported as high as $17 million.

Joining a hugely popular team that won the MLS Cup in just its second season, Martinez was expected to fill the attacking midfielder void left after Miguel Almirón's departure to England's Premier League.

It did not go as planned.

Martinez struggled to fit in as he joined a club outside his native country for the first time, clashing with coach Frank de Boer and sulking when he was pulled from the field or left out of the starting lineup in several key matches.

“Last year wasn't my best season.” Martinez conceded. “My head wasn't where it needed to be."

In 32 league games, Martinez managed just five goals - hardly the sort of production Atlanta was counting on from such an expensive acquisition.

“He showed is quality sometimes last season, but maybe he was a little bit inconsistent,” de Boer said, choosing his words carefully. “He knows that. Everybody knows that.”

De Boer noticed a big change in Martinez's demeanor coming into this season. The 26-year-old stepped up his work ethic and committed himself to being more of a leader to his younger teammates.

“He is fully committed in how he trains, how he wants to be a very important player for the team and also help the young guys,” de Boer said. “I'm really pleased with what he's showing.”

In the most encouraging sign for United supporters, Martinez appears to have developed a rapport with the team's biggest star, high-scoring striker Josef Martinez.

In Tuesday's victory, it was Josef who delivered the give-and-go pass that set up Pity's first goal late in the first half. Then it was Pity's sending a through ball that left Josef all alone against the keeper in the 60th minute. Finally, with the outcome no longer in doubt, Josef was taken down by the keeper just outside the penalty area, allowing Pity to gobble up the loose ball and complete the brace with a shot between two helpless defenders.

“Pity has been fantastic," United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. "His attitude, his willingness to defend, his willingness to close guys down, that goes a long way. It goes a long way not only for himself - it helps him get into the game, I think - but it also goes a long way with the other guys around him on the field."

After losing to Toronto in the Eastern Conference final last season and dealing with some tough salary-cap decisions that led to a jarring roster overhaul, United is counting on Josef Martinez, Pity Martinez and another potential star, 20-year-old Ezequiel Barco, to keep the team firmly among MLS' top tier.

Atlanta also hopes to make a deeper run in the Champions League after being eliminated in the quarterfinals a year ago.

Next up, United will face either Mexican powerhouse América or Guatemalan club Comunicaciones, who were tied 1-1 heading into their second leg Wednesday night.

Pity Martinez is confident he can build on his brilliant start to a year of redemption in Atlanta.

“I'm very happy coming here,” he said. “It's a new challenge for me. It's a great challenge.”

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com

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Updated February 26, 2020

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