Expected Narratives: Is Josef Martinez the Best Goal Scorer in MLS History? / by Ian L.

By Ian L. (@ahandleforian)

xN is our weekly look at what you can expect to read, write, and discuss about Major League Soccer this week. We take a look at each prospective narrative and rate it based on its strength and whether or not it has any actual merit.

Remember when we talked about how we should probably chill before awarding Orlando an A tier designation despite their six wins in a row? Well, they’ve had some injuries and finally hit that “good teams” stretch of the schedule and have dropped four on the trot. I’m not saying I was right or I told you so, but if that’s what you wanted to infer from this paragraph’s existence I wouldn’t be able to blame you. I’m patting myself for getting one right because I’m pretty sure my record is going to be more Giovinco taking a penalty than Giovinco taking a free kick by the end of the season. 

Looks like we’re going to be talking about Atlanta some more this week. I’d like to be able to avoid it, but the prime directive of this column is to assess narratives and it seems like no matter what happens everybody’s talking Atlanta. This week we watched Josef Martinez tie the all time MLS record for hat tricks with his fifth. The truly surprising aspect of this accomplishment is actually just how incredibly quickly it all happened. Per Paul Carr, of the three players that have accomplished this feat Josef Martinez was the fastest doing it in 34 matches. So can we look at Martinez’s stellar scoring record thus far and comfortably go ahead and stick him in the upper echelons?

Narrative: Josef Martinez is the best goalscorer in MLS history.
Narrative Strength: That boom-boom-clap they do in Mercedes Benz Stadium.
Narrative Accuracy: If I say no, he’s just going to prove me wrong

The last time Josef Martinez scored a hat trick, some friends of mine here at ASA (through no encouragement by me. Just trust me don’t ask them.) pointed out that Josef Martinez’s hat tricks may have benefited from some favorable game states. To wit: penalties and being up a man or two. Atlanta fans did not appreciate these comments and to this day our relationship remains strained at best. Well, I’m an idiot so I’m going to dive back in there and let’s try and figure out if JOSEF is the GOAT or the MFOAT (most fortunate of all time).

Ok first things first here, let’s get this out of the way nice and early so there is no confusion. Josef Martinez is an extraordinary goalscorer. The fact I’m even willing to discuss this so quickly in his MLS tenure speaks to just how fantastic he has been. Josef Martinez is not paid to score goals only when it’s most difficult to score goals. Martinez is doing everything he should be doing and he does it incredibly well. BUT if we’re going to acknowledge that his goal scoring (and hat trick scoring) pace is unbelievable, I think we’re perfectly within our rights to figure out exactly how it happened. Let’s break down these five hat tricks.

Starting with the most recent:

6/3/18 - Philadelphia Union
Philadelphia is reduced to nine men in the 19th minute after Atlanta is awarded a penalty. Josef scores two penalties this match and one goal from the run of play.
3/17/18 - Vancouver Whitecaps
Vancouver is reduced to ten men in the 13th minute after Atlanta is awarded a penalty. Josef scores the penalty and two goals from the run of play.
9/16/17 - Orlando City
Josef Martinez scores all three goals from open play and with both teams at full strength.
9/14/17 - New England Revolution
Martinez scores the first of this three goals from open play in the second minute when both teams are at full strength. New England would be down to 9 men by the 34th minute with Josef tacking on two penalty kicks enroute to a 7-0 win.
3/17/17 - Minnesota
Martinez scores all three goals from open play and with both teams at full strength. I know technically both teams were at full strength, but this was when Minnesota was still rolling Vadim Demidov out there, so while we can’t actually claim Minnesota was down any players I think we all know where I’m going with this.

Also for the sake of fairness, let’s compare this to how Stern John and Diego Serna’s went down (all data courtesy of worldfootball.net

Stern John Hat Tricks
4/18/98 vs Miami - No Reds - No Penalties
5/30/98 vs San Jose - No Reds - No Penalties
8/16/98 vs KC - No Reds - No Penalties
8/1/99 vs Miami - No Reds - No Penalties
8/18/99 vs Metrostars - No Reds - No Penalties - 4 goals

Diego Serna Hat Tricks
8/30/98 vs New England - No Reds - No Penalties
6/21/00 vs Tampa Bay - No Reds - No Penalties
9/2/00 vs Metrostars - No reds - 1 Penalty
9/9/00 vs DC  - 1 Red (all three Serna goals were scored prior to sending off) - No Penalties
6/2/01 vs Dallas - No Reds - No Penalties.

Now, let’s be real for a second here. Stern John was an absolute monster for late nineties MLS. The only striker that’s come in and had as much of a scoring impact as him is, well, Josef Martinez. Diego Serna was a fine striker as well, but you’ve also got to remember that both of these guys played in a very different MLS. An MLS where teams like Tampa Bay and the Metrostars and the Wiz and the Burn were getting hat tricks scored on them. Josef is doing this in a much more difficult and competent era of Major League Soccer. That has to count for something.

If you’re still reading, first of all thank you, and secondly, this is probably where you are asking “what’s your point Ian?” and I’m getting to that I promise.

We can all agree that it’s pretty uncommon for a team to go down two men in Major League Soccer. It’s happened 10 times since 2017. If you think that’s actually a lot, then I don’t blame you as that’s actually a lot more often than I would have imagined. But let’s remember it is 10 times out of 536 matches. Atlanta has been the beneficiary of this three times (also interesting Orlando has been the team to go down to nine men three times). Using the last year and a half as a basis, we can say that there’s approximately a 51.6 to 1 chance that your opponent goes down at least two men. The odds of if happening three times in that same period? About 137,388 to one). What does that have to do with Josef Martinez’s hat tricks? Well obviously two of his five hat tricks happened in one of those very special matches. A third hat trick was also scored a man up and two of the five matches featured Martinez scoring two of his three goals from the penalty spot which is also unusual. Needless to say, there’s been an element of, I guess the right word is fortune? If I wanted to spin it more positively I could say that Martinez is ruthless. If I wanted to spin it back the other way I could use a word like opportunistic.  Here’s the thing though. Fortunate, ruthless, opportunistic are three words I would very much like to be accurate descriptors of the striker on my favored soccer club. Obviously getting to five hat tricks in 34 games is an extraordinary statistic and nobody (myself included) is going to try and take that from him. It’s just interesting to see how it got accomplished so quickly.

But let’s pull back a bit. Let’s zoom out of this 34 game stretch and marvel at how unlikely the entire concept of the Josef Martinez we see before us actually is. When Josef Martinez was announced as an Atlanta player, I don’t think anybody saw it going down quite like it has. Martinez had established himself at having a certain skill set, and that skill set was being a man who was extremely fast at running. Perusing his statistics prior to landing in Atlanta, we see an extremely clear picture of a guy who was charitably (like Gates Foundation charitably) an average goalscorer.

It’s hard to see exactly what it was that Martino saw in this guy just looking at his statistics. Reading Torino fans remarks about him at that time don’t exactly paint a flattering picture either. Looking at his appearances in those days, he was deployed more as a secondary striker behind Fabio Quagliarella. If you’re unfamiliar with Quagliarella it’s because you’ve never until this moment read his name. You do not forget this name. Looking at shot charts from Torino, there’s some astonishing stuff if you’ve only paid attention to his MLS exploits. Here, I’ll post it for you.

 Josef Martinez shot chart for his time at Torino in Serie A.  Courtesy Understat.

Josef Martinez shot chart for his time at Torino in Serie A. Courtesy Understat.

Look at all of those shots from outside of the box.  Look at all of those missed shots dotted around the six yard line. If you’re wondering where all the goals are, look at the green circles. There are only seven of them. 3000 minutes of Josef Martinez and seven goals. Compare that to 2822 with Atlanta where he’s scored 31. Now, if you’ll permit me a bit of a spicy take here for a moment. Serie A defenses are better than MLS defenses. But surely not THAT much better.

Let’s look at his shot chart from MLS:

Ok that’s better. Look at all those nice red clusters around the six yard box. Believe it or not there are 31 goals in there. So what changed? Are MLS defenders really that terrible? They’re probably worse to be sure but I think that what mainly changed is where and how Martinez is deployed by Atlanta. Looking back at a sizzle reel of all of Martinez’s goals you can see that what he’s actually amazing at doing is getting behind defenses. He doesn’t score a ton of goals where he has to go around defenders himself. This isn’t something he does alone either. Atlanta has quite a few players who are pretty good a supplying a perfect ball. As a secondary striker at Torino, Martinez was asked to be more of a creative supplier of the ball. He received a lot of chances with defenders in front of him. Torino was still using a two forward system at this time and as the withdrawn forward he wasn’t able to get into the kind of positions he regularly gets into these days for Atlanta.

I don’t know for sure that this was always the plan for Martinez. When he was announced for Atlanta, they had already made Kenwyne Jones their “marquee” signing. I wonder if the original intent was to stick Martinez in that similar withdrawn role behind Jones. Or maybe, just maybe Tata Martino watched a team like Toronto play and saw how a diminutive quick forward like Giovinco was able to pierce MLS defenses so effectively and thought to himself “Hey why don’t I get me a quicker one?”

Ok. Verdict time. GOAT or MFOAT?

Neither and both. We’re still probably a little bit too early to call Josef Martinez the greatest goalscorer in MLS history even though he’s very much on pace to be. I don’t know how long he intends to stay at Atlanta. Numbers as eye-popping as these are surely going to raise eyebrows abroad and I don’t think any Atlanta fan would begrudge him a chance to prove himself in Europe. Then again, he’s already been and it wasn’t a great experience. Martinez seems happy here (as happy as Martinez can seem to be). He gets to play in a fantastic atmosphere and leverage his skillset to its maximum value. If Atlanta can manage to hold on to him, it’s easy to imagine him being in that GOAT conversation over the next few seasons.

Of Martinez’s 31 goals, he’s scored 13 of them while being a man up. I don’t know if that’s an unusual quirk of his or a result of whatever statistical noise it is that grants Atlanta a man advantage so frequently. The six penalties he’s scored don’t represent that significant of a portion of his haul either. He’s scored a vast majority of his goals at home, but then again so has Atlanta and you could say that about a lot of forwards. I still maintain that his record race to five hat tricks has benefited tremendously from some extremely favorable game states and that’s ok too. It isn’t Martinez’s job to only score goals when I think it’s more impressive or valuable. Is he great? Yes. Obviously. Is he fortunate? Yes. Obviously. I’m not of the belief that a majority of soccer comes down to luck. I also do not necessarily support that old adage “you make your own luck” either. Players and teams can be both good AND fortunate. Players and teams can be both bad AND unfortunate (looking at you 2018 Seattle Sounders). If anything the most fortunate thing for Martinez is that he found himself in the right place with exactly the right team at exactly the right time, and you know what? Maybe that kind of luck is one that you can make on your own.

From great goalscorers to those that may not be. This next narrative is a quick one.

Narrative: CJ Sapong can’t finish.
Narrative Strength: Doop out of Doop point five.
Narrative Accuracy: Like missing a sitter.

I had Eliot pull this for me and it’s eye opening. These are the highest conversion rates of forwards with at least 90 open play shots since 2017. (Note: This list has penalties stripped because well, because penalties just throw stuff like this off).

Shooter Shots Goals Conversion xG mean.xG Distance
Josef Martinez 95 25 0.26 19.30 0.20 12.41
Bradley Wright-Phillips 111 26 0.23 19.33 0.17 12.56
Nemanja Nikolic 133 25 0.19 22.78 0.17 11.91
Ola Kamara 115 21 0.18 21.85 0.19 11.19
Ignacio Piatti 102 17 0.17 8.31 0.08 14.61
C.J. Sapong 91 15 0.16 17.09 0.19 12.55
Diego Valeri 116 19 0.16 10.59 0.09 15.98
Dominic Dwyer 95 15 0.16 13.11 0.14 13.03
Mauro Manotas 102 15 0.15 15.45 0.15 15.05
Chris Wondolowski 90 13 0.14 11.99 0.13 13.80
David Villa 168 24 0.14 14.54 0.09 14.73
Justin Meram 101 14 0.14 11.09 0.11 13.46
Hector Villalba 105 14 0.13 10.59 0.10 17.07
Alberth Elis 122 16 0.13 17.04 0.14 15.19
Kei Kamara 115 14 0.12 12.65 0.11 15.27
Maximiliano Urruti 143 17 0.12 12.96 0.09 15.32
Sebastian Blanco 111 13 0.12 8.11 0.07 14.54
Diego Fagundez 98 11 0.11 11.60 0.12 13.91
Romain Alessandrini 125 13 0.10 8.90 0.07 18.77
Danny Hoesen 116 12 0.10 11.85 0.10 14.19
Sebastian Giovinco 181 17 0.09 12.65 0.07 15.64
Albert Rusnak 109 9 0.08 6.66 0.06 16.63
Clint Dempsey 132 10 0.08 13.57 0.10 14.09
Miguel Almiron 150 10 0.07 11.95 0.08 13.55
Joao Plata 111 7 0.06 12.65 0.11 11.23

As I just endlessly expounded upon it’s no surprise to see Josef Martinez right up there at the top. There’s CJ at number six. I actually see a few players here that “can’t finish”. That criticism has been leveled at Mauro Manotas and (bizarrely) at Alberth Elis as well. The other thing worth pointing out again is that Bradley Wright-Phillips is absolutely fantastic.

If you skipped that whole Martinez thing to get here I don’t necessarily blame you, but right there at the end we talked about how players can be both good AND fortunate, both bad AND unfortunate, and CJ Sapong falls into another category. Right now he’s good AND unfortunate. I’ve seen the videos folks. I provide the gifs for Lowered Expectations. I know he’s had some real facepalm moments in front of goal this season. I know how incredibly frustrating that can be for Philadelphia fans, but I also know that CJ is still getting in the right positions and taking the right shots. If he can keep doing that and not get in his own head about some of his early season howlers, the goals will come.

That’s all for this week in Narratives. I’m not sure if I’m going to do a World Cup edition of this column or not. I guess it all depends on my ability to not sink into a deep pit of despair every time I remember that the US aren’t a part of it. Still, several MLS players are making appearances in Russia this summer and I wish them all of the best of luck on the world’s biggest stage. The world’s biggest stage that won’t feature a team from the United States... and there’s that pit of despair again. Enjoy your banter soccer friends. We’ll be back next week to talk about whatever it is we’re talking about