KENNESAW, Ga. — Pity Martinez seemed to be everywhere on the soccer field Tuesday night at Kennesaw State University.
He scored off a nifty back-heeled flick. He launched a pinpoint pass to set up another goal. He swooped in to find the net one more time with the keeper out of position.
After a disappointing debut season with Atlanta United FC in 2019, Martinez showed off the tantalizing skills that made him the South American player of the year and could take him to stardom in Major League Soccer.
The 26-year-old from Argentina scored two goals and assisted on another to lead Atlanta to a 3-0 victory over Honduran club Motagua at Fifth Third Bank Stadium, giving Atlanta a 4-1 aggregate victory in the opening round of the CONCACAF Champions League. The teams played to a 1-1 draw Feb. 18 in Honduras.
"This is the version of Pity that you want to see," Martinez said through an interpreter. "It's a Pity who is feeling confident and comfortable. This is the version that all of you guys wanted to see."
In the opening leg of the series, Martinez assisted on the goal for Atlanta, which opens its 2020 MLS schedule Saturday night at Nashville SC, an expansion club.
"I'm feeling very comfortable and in a good place right now," he said.
Martinez arrived in Atlanta to great fanfare after leading Argentina's River Plate to the Copa Libertadores title in 2018. Atlanta doled out a huge transfer fee, reported as high as $17 million.
Joining a hugely popular team that had just won the MLS Cup in only its second season, Martinez was expected to fill the attacking midfielder void left after Miguel Almirón's departure to England's Premier League.
It did not go as planned. Martinez struggled to fit in as he joined a club outside his native country for the first time, clashing with coach Frank de Boer and sulking when he was pulled from the field or left out of the starting lineup in several key matches.
"Last year wasn't my best season." Martinez conceded. "My head wasn't where it needed to be."
In 32 league games, Martinez managed just five goals — hardly the sort of production Atlanta was counting on from such an expensive acquisition.
"He showed his quality sometimes last season, but maybe he was a little bit inconsistent," de Boer said, choosing his words carefully. "He knows that. Everybody knows that."
De Boer noticed a big change in Martinez's demeanor coming into this season. The player stepped up his work ethic and committed himself to being more of a leader to his younger teammates.
"He is fully committed in how he trains, how he wants to be a very important player for the team and also help the young guys," de Boer said. "I'm really pleased with what he's showing."
In the most encouraging sign for Atlanta supporters, Martinez appears to have developed a rapport with the team's biggest star, high-scoring striker Josef Martinez.
In Tuesday's victory, it was Josef who delivered the give-and-go pass that set up Pity's first goal late in the first half. Then it was Pity sending a through ball that left Josef all alone against the goalkeeper in the 60th minute. Finally, with the outcome no longer in doubt, Josef was taken down by the keeper just outside the penalty area, allowing Pity to gobble up the loose ball and complete his two-goal performance with a shot between two helpless defenders.
"Pity has been fantastic," Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. "His attitude, his willingness to defend, his willingness to close guys down, that goes a long way. It goes a long way not only for himself — it helps him get into the game, I think — but it also goes a long way with the other guys around him on the field."
After losing to Toronto in the Eastern Conference final last season and dealing with some tough salary-cap decisions that led to a jarring roster overhaul, Atlanta is counting on Josef, Pity and another potential star, 20-year-old Ezequiel Barco from Argentina, to keep the team firmly among MLS' top tier.
Atlanta also hopes to make a deeper run in the Champions League after being eliminated in the quarterfinals a year ago. Next up is either Mexican powerhouse América or Guatemalan club Comunicaciones.
Pity is confident he can build on his brilliant start to a year of redemption in Atlanta.
"I'm very happy coming here," he said. "It's a new challenge for me. It's a great challenge."