Multiple Major League Soccer sides made a splash in the transfer market this summer. Toronto FC signed Italian National Team players, including midfielder Lorenzo Insigne, LAFC brought in Champions League winner Gareth Bale and fellow MLS originals D.C. United acquired former Liverpool and Crystal Palace striker Christian Benteke.
While MLS does like to showcase the new, shiny players from overseas, there are often times that existing stars turn another regular season match into an event. Sunday is one of those events when one of these new signings, the Crew’s Cucho Hernández, and Atlanta United veteran Josef Martínez meet for the first time.
Hernández and Martínez make for a dynamic matchup. Sunday’s contest at Lower.com Field features two marauding, space-exploiting, confident strikers who can seemingly score from any position.
They also represent a change in how MLS operates. Instead of the days when clubs brought in older players with international experience to get fans into the seats, the two South American strikers (Hernández from Colombia and Martínez from Venezuela) entered the league young and got off to a fast start in grabbing the league’s attention.
On the Atlanta side, Martínez debuted for United as an expansion team in March of 2017. In his second match, he scored a hat trick in a 6-1 victory against Minnesota United and hasn’t looked back. Martínez broke the MLS record for goals in a season with 31 in 2018. That same year, he was named MLS’s Most Valuable Player, MLS Cup MVP and received one of his three MLS Best XI honors.
Wednesday, in a 2-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls, Martínez broke another record as the fastest player in the league to reach 100 goals, reaching the mark in his 125th appearance, shattering the previous record of 100 goals in 156 matches by the LA Galaxy’s Robbie Keane.
Hernández would like to do something similar.
Before joining the Crew, Hernández told head coach Caleb Porter that he wants to be the face of the team and score the most goals. So far, he’s going down a similar road to Martínez.
In seven matches, the new Black & Gold forward has six goals, a statistic made more special considering Hernández joined a team in the midseason and didn’t have a preseason to prepare. Martínez, in comparison, had seven goals in his first seven MLS matches.
Their similarities aren’t only in the number of goals scored, but the way they play. Someone who knows that well is Martínez’s former and Hernández’s current teammate, Darlington Nagbe.
“Similar how they play, obviously, stature as well,” said Nagbe of the two players this week. “They bring to the game the in-air finishing, excellent finishers. So they’re kind of similar in my opinion, and Cucho’s kind of picked up and has been doing great things for us. Same as Josef has done for Atlanta. Two great strikers, lucky to have played with both of them and to continue playing with Cucho.”
Both players will be trouble for the opposing defense on Saturday, especially Atlanta. The Five Stripes have allowed 1.5 goals per match this season after season-ending injuries to goalkeeper Brad Guzan and center back Miles Robinson.
In the team’s last match before Hernández was available, Columbus scored twice at United. Now it’s Hernández’s chance to see what he can do against an Atlanta side that’s pushing for an MLS Cup playoff spot with nine matches remaining.
While United has struggled this year, sitting 13th in the Eastern Conference, the Five Stripes still possess an attack that can give opposing defenses nightmares. Martínez, forward Ronaldo Cisneros and Argentinian Designated Player midfielder Thiago Almada will push the Crew backline. The Five Stripes sits second in the league in 2022 in shots on target, but that doesn’t lead to panic for the Black & Gold.
“We don’t need to change much,” said Columbus center back Jonathan Mensah. “We need to play hard, play as a team and take advantage of our chances when we get a few. Josef Martínez and their good individual players, we don’t need to manage them individually, we need to do it collectively. I believe we’ll be fine.”
Hernández and Martínez both require strong team defense, but that’s not all. They are individual players in a team game, a game that requires all the moving parts to work. For the two South American strikers to make an impact, they need something else.
“Martínez can’t score unless he gets good service,” said Porter. “If they’re able to get service into him, he’ll score. The same with Cucho. He can’t score unless we get him good service. So it’s going to be more about the other players, to be honest with you. Can we get Cucho in good positions? I think we’ve done that pretty well since he’s arrived and can we stop Martínez from getting in good positions.”
The team that best can hold these two similar South American strikers in check will give themselves the best chance to win the game on Sunday.