Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron live up to All-Star hype in front of home crowd
ATLANTA -- Josef Martinez gave his home fans exactly what they expected. Miguel Almiron showed a side of his game that isn't always noticed. Both performances helped a thrown-together All-Star side give a strong showing in the MLS All-Star Game against Italian powerhouse Juventus.
The result will go down as a win for Juventus, with the Bianconeri prevailing on penalties 5-3 after the teams played to a 1-1 tie through 90 minutes Wednesday. And it should be noted that some big stars from both sides -- Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the MLS All-Stars and Cristiano Ronaldo and other World Cup performers for Juventus -- weren't on display.
But this was an edition of the MLS All-Star Game that delivered from an entertainment standpoint, as the MLS All-Stars acquitted themselves well. There were clear chances for both teams, some impressive saves and a couple of well-taken goals, albeit in wildly contrasting styles.
Andrea Favilli's 21st-minute opener had the precision of a surgeon, with his glancing header cleanly beating MLS All-Star keeper Brad Guzan. Martinez's equalizer five minutes later was more of the sledgehammer variety.
Martinez's goal capped off an utterly chaotic sequence. It was his pass that initially set up Carlos Vela's volley, one that Juventus keeper Wojciech Szczesny saved brilliantly by pushing it onto the crossbar. Ignacio Piatti kept the play alive, heading the rebound across the face of the goal. At which point, Martinez risked getting either a boot or a post to the face -- perhaps even both -- but his brave header made it over the line to bring the All-Stars level.
It was a goal befitting the league's leading scorer, and this one resulted in him being named the game's MVP. Yet it was also a tally that left club teammate Michael Parkhurst in awe when one might expect him to be used to such exploits.
"Another fearless goal," said Parkhurst. "He sticks his head right in there and almost gets crushed in the face. He's already got a broken nose, but he doesn't care. The goal is more important for him and we're happy that he got another one."
It's the kind of play one wouldn't expect to see in an All-Star Game. There are plenty of games that matter still to be played for Martinez, especially in the MLS Cup playoffs. But all week there has been a sense of responsibility to the MLS All-Stars' approach. There was a strong desire to show well and give a good account. Martinez took that attitude to the extreme.
"There was a lot of pressure, beyond the fact that we had a very good opponent and we had to do it well," he said afterward with the help of a translator. "It was an important game, especially at this caliber. We have never played together before -- we only had three days to meet, but I think we looked good despite that."
Who the opponent was also provided an extra dose of motivation for Martinez. He spent three years on the books of Torino, Juventus' city rival.
"I scored once against them with Torino, but it was offside, and it was against [Gianluigi] Buffon," he said.
Now he has one that counted on the scoreboard, even if it was in an exhibition.
As for Almiron, it's his dynamic running, dead-eye passing and finishing that often catch the eye. And there were certainly moments when those skills were on display, in particular a flowing move that ended with club teammate Ezequiel Barco. But on this night, it was his defensive contributions that caught the eye. Tata Martino -- Almiron's manager at club level with Atlanta United -- had the task of managing the All-Stars on this night, and he had particular concern about the potential impact of Juventus midfielder Miralem Pjanic.
"[Pjanic is] excellent initiating the play out of the back, so we wanted to make sure we pressured him and didn't allow him to feel comfortable in initiating the play," said Martino.
Almiron made sure Pjanic's time on the ball was limited, sprinting toward him whenever he got the ball. Granted, Juventus is deep into its preseason, and there was bound to be some fatigue in the Bianconeri's legs. But for anyone watching, it served as reminder that Almiron's game contains some commitment in defense and not just the attack.
Now the focus returns to league play and the campaign at hand. Martinez's 24 goals already have him within sniffing distance of the single-season record of 27.
When asked if this was his best season ever, Martinez said with a laugh, "I think this has been my only good season. About the record, I don't ever think about it because it adds pressure. I just look forward to continue to feel good, to play well and to score, because it is my obligation."
Wednesday's has already been met.