Atlanta United interim manager Rob Valentino has urged his players to stick together against Columbus Crew on Saturday in the absence of the suspended Josef Martinez.
The Venezuelan striker scored and won a penalty as the Five Stripes came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 with CF Montreal during the week.
However, he was shown a red card in the 82nd minute after an altercation with Montreal midfielder Victor Wanyama, who was also sent off. Wanyama appeared to put his hands around Martinez’s throat and stopped the forward from leaving the Montreal goalmouth, with Martinez responding by pushing the midfielder away.
The decision by referee David Gantar to send Martinez off alongside Wanyama sparked fury among the Atlanta fanbase. But when asked about the incident after the match, Valentino refused to be drawn for fear of landing in hot water.
“I’ve just seen it. I’m not going to comment, that just gets you in trouble, doesn’t it?” he said.
Regardless, Atlanta will be without Martinez – who has three MLS goals to his name this season – for the visit of reigning MLS Cup champions Columbus on Saturday. Valentino wants his players to stay close and believes team spirit can see them through.
“We talked before the game, not about this particular situation, but in general we talked about when we face adversity,” Valentino said. “What do we look like? What does it mean to you? What’s your motivation to push forward?
“It’s really disappointing that we won’t have him, potentially, but I think as a group we have to be together. There are no excuses. He goes out, the next person has to step up, whoever that might be. That’s the beauty of team sports. It’s unfortunate that he might have to step out for this reason.”
Atlanta United are in the midst of a 12-game winless streak which has seen them slip down to 11th in the Eastern Conference. Their opponents on Saturday occupy the seventh and final playoff spot and hold a nine-point advantage over the Five Stripes, making this a must-win game for the 2018 MLS Cup champions if they wish to make the post-season.
Valentino will at least be boosted for the rest of the season by the arrival of Brazilian forward Luiz Araujo, whose $12m move from French champions Lille was confirmed on Friday.