Striker Josef Martinez happy to be back with Atlanta United

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ATLANTA — Striker Josef Martinez is looking forward to returning to action with Atlanta United after being told by the former coach to train away from the struggling MLS team.

Martinez, who led Atlanta to the MLS title in 2018, shed no light Tuesday on why coach Gabriel Heinze told him to stay away from the team, but he is happy being back with teammates.

Heinze, who was hired in December 2020, was fired on Sunday. Atlanta has a 2-4-7 record and is riding an eight-game winless streak heading into a game on Wednesday at Cincinnati.

“What’s in the past is in the past. I think the most important thing for us now is to lift our heads up . . . and return to winning games,” Martinez said through an interpreter. “I have this year and I have two more years. This is my club and this is my city. I love this club.”

Martinez returned to practice Sunday after training away from the team for a few weeks at the direction of Heinze.

Neither Heinze or Martinez have explained what prompted the former coach to exile the 2018 MLS MVP after his return in June from playing for Venezuela in Copa America. Martinez tested positive for COVID at the event.

Heinze said last week that Martinez was not away for fitness reasons.

Martinez missed almost all of 2020 with a knee injury. He has two goals in seven games this year.

Atlanta is two years removed from its title. The team has been ransacked by injuries and multiple personnel decisions made by team president Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra have come under question.

Recent reports by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Athletic have said the MLS players union filed a grievance(s) with the league over Heinze’s practice procedures. Allegedly, he restricted player access to hydration and did not honour collectively bargained practice limits.

Martinez did not comment on the reports, saying, “Whatever’s been said in the news is already out there and I have nothing to add on that.”

After returning from Copa America, Martinez said he was found to have an issue with his heart. He did not offer details.

“After the 12 days that we were in quarantine, for us to return to physical training, we had to pass certain physical tests and one was a cardiac test,” he said. “I don’t think it was a very big problem, but it was something we had to be careful with.”

With assistant Rob Valentino as interim coach – the fourth coach or interim Atlanta has had in a year – the United are 10th in the East, where eight teams will qualify.

Martinez scored 19 goals in 2017, a single-season record 31 in 2018 and 27 in 2019. He sustained an ACL injury in the first game of last season.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Matt Winkeljohn, The Associated Press

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