MLS Inter Miami Soccer

Venezuelan striker Josef Martinez, center, holds an Inter Miami soccer jersey as he poses for a photograph with head coach Phil Neville, left and Chief Sporting Director Chris Henderson, right, during a news conference at the Inter Miami soccer stadium, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Martinez signed as a free agent with the MLS Inter Miami soccer team after playing for Atlanta United. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

ATLANTA (AP) — There was a time when Josef Martinez wanted to play the rest of his career in Atlanta.

Now, he's eager to make his mark in South Florida.

Martinez, the 2018 Major League Soccer MVP and centerpiece of Atlanta United's rise to prominence, was released by the club on Wednesday so he could sign with Inter Miami.

The corresponding moves were not unexpected, given Martinez's struggles last season under United coach Gonzalo Pineda. The striker was told months ago that he wasn't going to be part of Atlanta's future.

Still, it was jarring news for the city's record-setting fan base, which had adopted the 29-year-old Venezuelan as one of its own. He was even the subject of a large mural painted on a wall near Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

"They have a special side in my heart," Martinez said, speaking of his time in Atlanta during an introductory news conference at Miami's DRV PNK Stadium. "We had some great, great, great days together."

United technical director Carlos Bocanegra called it "an emotional day."

"What he's done for the city and what he's done for the club are pretty unrivaled," Bocanegra said. "He will always be a part of Atlanta United."

After three stellar seasons that included leading United to the MLS Cup championship in just its second year in the league, Martinez never seemed to regain his dynamic form following a severe knee injury in the 2020 league opener.

Martinez said he's working hard to become the player he once was, and he joins Inter Miami with some very clear goals. The club is heading into its fourth season and looking to improve after last year's loss in the opening round of the playoffs.

"We want to win," Martinez said. "I want to score and score and score and score."

Looking to rebuild a team that missed the playoffs for only the second time in its history, Bocanegra called Martinez's release a business decision that had been discussed with the player and his representatives throughout the offseason.

He had a no-trade clause and a designated player contract worth more than $4 million for the upcoming season, which made it more difficult to find a deal that worked.

Finally, it came together with a club that Martinez felt was a good fit for him. Atlanta United was allowed one offseason buyout, which was used to remove Martinez from his designated player slot, and Inter Miami will pick up the remainder of his contract.

Bocanegra had raised the possibility to Martinez as far back as 2020 that this day would come.

"He came over to my house and we were sitting in the backyard, having a cigar, chatting about it," Bocanegra recalled. "This is professional sports. We will have to part ways. Unfortunately, that time is now. This chapter is closed."

Martinez had long expressed a desire to spend the rest of his career in Atlanta, even taking great pride in learning English so he would fit better in the community.

He's eager for a fresh start in Miami. He has a 2-month-old son and wants to establish roots in South Florida, where he's got other family and friends.

Martinez left quite a legacy in Atlanta, becoming the face of the expansion franchise after joining from Torino in Italy's Serie A before the inaugural season in 2017. He scored 98 goals in 134 MLS appearances, and 111 goals over 158 matches in all competitions.

But it wasn't just the stats.

It was the flair with which he played, a 5-foot-8 goal-scoring machine who fearlessly attacked the net, always seemed bigger than his stature and kept everyone guessing with the color and style of his hair.

He scored 19 goals in 20 matches his first season, helping United reach the playoffs while setting the first batch of what would become numerous attendance records.

The 2018 season was even better. Martinez scored a then-record 31 goals to win the MLS Golden Boot, was selected as the league's MVP and celebrated again at the end of the campaign as United captured the MLS Cup before more than 70,000 fans in Atlanta.

Martínez followed with another big season in 2019, scoring 27 goals in MLS play and 33 goals across all competition, but United lost at home in the conference finals. The team did add two more trophies to its case, claiming both the U.S. Open Cup and the Campeones Cup.

Then, in the 2020 opener at Nashville, Martinez went down with a torn ACL that kept him out the rest of the year.

Atlanta, meanwhile, went through turmoil in the coaching ranks, going through four managers in less than two years before Pineda was hired during the 2021 season.

He never seemed to mesh with the team's biggest star, who was upset at being brought off the bench this past season. Martinez was even suspended for a week for a reported verbal confrontation with the coach.

After scoring 77 goals in 83 MLS appearances over his first three seasons, Martinez managed just 21 goals in 51 games the last three years.

Still, United officials all the way up to team owner Arthur Blank had nothing but kind words for Martinez as he departed.

"Josef Martínez has poured his heart and soul into Atlanta United," Blank said. "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."

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