'We know they can be a dangerous side' – Noonan looks towards Saturday's clash with Miami


When Inter Miami FC comes to TQL Stadium on Saturday, it’s expected they’ll present a challenge from a player with a track record of putting the ball in the back of the net against Cincinnati. But this year the name is different, even if the goal total is about the same.

Gonzalo Higuain, whose seven goals (in six games) tie him with Gyasi Zardes for most by any Orange and Blue foe, has since retired. The Argentine scored three times in the teams’ last meeting, a 4-4 draw in July 2022 at Miami, but he called it a career at age 34 after the MLS season.

Enter now an equally familiar and dangerous player – always fiery and at times controversial – wearing Inter Miami’s pink and black. Josef Martinez, an offseason acquisition, is seeking a fresh start with the Herons after a much-decorated Atlanta United career that went off the rails last season, his sixth with the club. The Venezuelan’s overall production declined, and he served a one-week club suspension after a locker-room altercation with head coach Gonzalo Pineda.

But Martinez had six goals in six Atlanta matches against FCC, tied for third-most goals by an individual opponent. He missed Miami’s home loss to Chicago last week due to an assignment with the Venezuelan National Team, but FCC coach Pat Noonan says the club is preparing to see him back in action this week. Martinez started Miami’s first four games, and though he has not scored, he’s tied for second on the squad in shots (seven) despite the missed match.

Last season for Atlanta, Martinez assisted on Andrew Gutman’s equalizing goal in a 2-2 draw at TQL Stadium, and in 2021, he scored the game-winner in a 2-1 decision at TQL. He had a brace in a 4-0 Atlanta home win earlier in ’21, and he scored both goals in a 2-0 United win at Nippert Stadium in 2019.

Martinez’s 111 career goals across all competitions is sure to stand for years as the most in United history. He was named MLS MVP for his play with Atlanta’s 2018 MLS Cup-winning team and has three times been named to MLS Best XI. His six hat tricks are an MLS record, and he became the fastest player in league history to score 100 goals in all competitions, reaching the mark in 125 games.

Asked this preseason by The Athletic if he had the same “hunger and snarl” that made him an Atlanta fan favorite and a top villain for other clubs, Martinez said:

“That’s the only me that I know. I’m here to win. The ring is all that matters. Nothing else.”

Asked upon the signing Martinez if he’d had second thoughts about the player’s unpleasant exit from Atlanta, Miami head coach Phil Neville said, “There was one thing that kept sticking in my mind: he’s a winner. I want 22 more of these players.”

The Herons opened this season with 2-0 home victories over Montreal and Philadelphia but have hit hard times since, with three losses.

They lost 1-0 at New York City FC in Match 3 and also lost the services of Gregore, their midfield star and team captain, to a season-ending Lisfranc injury. They since have fallen 2-nil at Montreal and 3-2 at home against Chicago. They rallied from a 2-0 deficit to tie the Chicago game, but lost on a goal in stoppage time.

“They had a strong start, and we know they can be a dangerous side,” said FCC’s Noonan. “I know it has been very tough on them to lose Gregore. He’s such an important part of their team. It’s difficult to be your best when you’re adjusting to missing a key piece like that. But they’ve had some time now. They showed some spark (against Chicago) last week.”

Miami leads the all-time series against FCC by 4-1-1. But their four wins all occurred over 2020-21, and anything prior to 2022 can be justifiably seen as a sharply different era for FCC.

The playoff-bound Orange and Blue team of last season went 1-0-1 against the Herons, winning 3-1 at home on March 19 and getting a road point in the 4-4 game on July 30 at DVR PNK Stadium. Cincinnati’s key contributor in both of those games was striker Brandon Vazquez, who scored a brace in each.