Could we see Josef Martínez in Nashville?

It is no secret, Nashville SC has a problem at striker. Since MLS awarded the city an expansion club, an ever-present topic of conversation has been who the club could acquire to play the #9 role.

In Nashville’s brief history, the club has attempted to fill the forward position opposite of Hany Mukhtar in a variety of ways – MLS veterans, USL stars, and foreign Designated Players. Yet, nothing Mike Jacobs and company have tried has quite stuck. 

Given that the Coyotes’ top offseason priority must be addressing the striker position, no stone can be left unturned. It just so happens that the 2018 MLS MVP winner happens to be one of those stones.

Yesterday, Felipe Cardenas reported that Josef Martínez has been told that he will not return to Atlanta United in 2023.

Cardenas’s breaking news immediately sparked conversation and debate among Nashville supporters as to whether Martínez should be an offseason target.

Martínez and Nashville’s stories intertwine. After three remarkable seasons in Atlanta, Martínez’s career hit a crossroads in the 2020 season opener in Nashville’s Nissan Stadium. The Five Stripes striker tore his ACL, ending his season after just 68 minutes. 

Since the knee ligament tear, Martínez’s career has sputtered. His appearances became more erratic as he battled a start-stop recovery process, likely made more difficult by Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s artificial turf field. His goal rate plummeted to more pedestrian levels, and he never recaptured the magic of his first three seasons. Off the field, Martínez engaged in spats with multiple Atlanta coaching staffs that never stayed behind closed doors. 

Josef has not been “Josef” since 2019. Despite three years of failing to live up to his superstar name, every front office in the league will have a conversation this week, if they have not already, as to whether their club can recapture Martínez’s magic. Nashville SC is no different. Those internal debates carry all the more weight when your two strikers, combined, mustered only 10 goals in league play. 

Why Nashville should swing for the fences and sign Josef Martínez

Nashville has a scoring problem and a fleeting title window. Rather than make another risky foreign signing that may need an adjustment period to MLS, the Coyotes could swing for the fences and trade for Josef Martínez. A healthy and firing Josef Martínez makes Nashville a favorite in the race for silverware. 

Josef Martínez is just 29 years old. Let that marinate for a second. 

If you listen to the discourse surrounding Martínez, it is easy to assume that he was in his mid-thirties nearing the edge of retirement. MLS punditry has largely written him off as a has-been that will never return to glory. Martínez is not the first athlete to go through a knee injury and a bumpy recovery. Still in his twenties, he should have plenty of tread left on his tires. Plus, getting those tires on a natural grass field could breathe new life into them. 

When on the field, there have been glimpses that Josef can deliver his old magic.  

The goal-scoring drop in the last two seasons may not be entirely his fault. Atlanta spent tens of millions of dollars on numerous attacking pieces and the offense still looked more lackluster than lethal.

Even with a disjointed attack, there are underlying numbers that suggest that Martínez can still produce with regularity. Over the last two seasons, he is 13th among forwards in xG on a per 96-minute basis. He sits just four slots below Hany Mukhtar in that figure.

A midfield that can supply him with regular service may shoot him back up that list. He was at his best in Atlanta when Julian Gressel fed him with picture-perfect crosses into the box. A combination of Daniel Lovitz and Shaq Moore could provide similar opportunities.

Most of all, a bet on Josef is a bet on his mentality. He plays with an edge and anger unmatched by perhaps anyone in the league. Put him on one of Atlanta’s rivals and watch his pettiness fuel him.

With his motivation in the right situation, it would not be surprising in the least bit to see Martínez reclaim his throne as MLS’s goal-scoring king.

Why Nashville should stay away from Josef Martínez

Martínez to the Music City sounds wonderful in theory. The realities paint a far less rosy picture. 

Let’s start with system fit. 

Much to the dismay of a segment of Nashville SC supporters, Gary Smith will return as manager in 2022. With it comes his style and philosophy that the whole of the team is better than the sum of its parts. Each position, striker included, is expected to fulfill their role defensively and in possession. Throughout Smith’s tenure, he has favored #9’s with a high work rate, commitment to hold-up play, and a willingness to do the dirty work that elevates the entire team. 

Do you know who that sounds like? Definitely not Josef Martínez. 

He is a striker of a completely different mold. Martínez is at his best when he occupies center backs, sits on the back shoulder, and makes darting runs that place him in prime scoring position. He is a poacher in the best sense imaginable with a singular focus – score goals. Anything else is ancillary. 

Handing Martínez to Gary Smith is giving him a square peg to jam into a round hole. He just doesn’t fit Smith’s tactical setup.

Assuming adjustments can be made to accommodate, there is still a big assumption to be made that the square peg can produce at all. He may be 29 years old, but the tracking data demonstrates a player with the legs of someone nearing retirement age. Matt Doyle of MLSsoccer.com pointed out in his year-end wrap-up of Atlanta United:

Josef seemed to show more fight in that blow-up than he often did on the field this year. By virtually every tracking metric he’s the worst defensive forward in the league – he basically does not run or press anymore on that side of the ball, and what’s worse is that his top sprinting speed this season clocks in at the 8th percentile among MLS forwards. His total distance covered per 90? That’s in the first percentile.

Matt Doyle, MLSSoccer.com

Beyond the questionable on-field fit with Nashville, there are reservations as to how Martínez fits off the field. Three successive coaching staffs in Atlanta ran into issues with managing the temperamental talisman. At what point does the blame shift from poor managers to the player himself? If he is not starting and scoring from Day 1 in Nashville, do we think things will turn out differently? Doubtful. The Coyotes would be left with yet another DP forward left to rot on the bench. Only this time, you cannot expect that he will take his lack of starts quietly.   

Lastly, Martínez’s acquisition would fail to address the most existential issue facing Nashville SC – its aging roster. The Coyotes were the oldest team in MLS last season and the only team to not provide a single minute of game time to someone under the age of 22.

The nascent academy will probably produce its first homegrown signing this offseason as Nashville fills the inaugural roster for its MLS NEXT Pro team. But it is not ready to start feeding the senior roster with new blood. If Nashville wants to inject youth into its aging core, Mike Jacobs must take intentional strides through recruitment. Martínez may shift minutes away from C.J. Sapong, 33, but it would amount to kicking the can slightly down the road. 

Rather than trying to make Martínez work in Nashville, Mike Jacobs could look across the global soccer landscape to find a younger Designated Player that has a chance to excel within Gary Smith’s system. Someone like Adam Buksa would be an ideal target for Mike Jacobs and Gary Smith. New England purchased the towering Buksa at 23 years old. After a brief adjustment period, the Polish striker proved to be a worthwhile purchase helping lead the Revs to a Supporters’ Shield and returning a $10 million transfer fee on his way back to Europe.  

At a $4 million salary for 2023, it’s fair to wonder if monies hypothetically paid to Martínez on a one-year rental are better spent on an appreciating asset.

Josef Martínez sounds great in theory, but his fit is far too questionable for Nashville to pursue.

All that really matters is Nashville finds someone to score goals

I don’t think most Nashville supporters care one way or the other if Nashville trade for Josef Martínez. They just want someone who will score loads of goals. Whether that comes from Martínez, a high-priced transfer, an aging European star, or just C.J. Sapong continuing with his trend of scoring double-digit goals in odd-numbered years, it does not matter. The Coyotes just need a striker who will reliably score goals. 

Martínez could score 20 goals next season with Orlando City or Minnesota and not a single question will be raised if Nashville finds its own elite striker elsewhere. But a resurgent Martínez coupled with a continuation of Nashville’s struggles to solve its striker riddle will only serve to turn up the heat on the current regime.

Author: Chris IveyChris is a senior writer covering Nashville SC. His work includes his "Three Thoughts" piece after every Nashville match that highlights the important storylines and incorporates key video clips from the match. Chris' other articles often navigate the complexity of roster building around the myriad of MLS roster rules. Outside of Broadway Sports Media, Chris resides in Knoxville and is a licensed attorney serving as in-house counsel for a large insurance company. Beyond NSC, he is always willing to discuss Tennessee football and basketball, Manchester United, Coventry City, and USMNT. Follow Chris on Mastodon

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