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Jose Martinez the key to stopping NYCFC’s attack

MLS: Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Andre Blake and Leon Flach grabbed the headlines after the Union’s 1-0 victory over FC Cincinnati in the Conference Semifinals. The Union goalkeeper and MLS MVP candidate made several big saves in the second half to preserve the clean sheet after the Union midfielder scored his first goal in 45 games. But José Martinez is responsible for slowing down the explosive FC Cincinnati front-three, who had an equally impressive strike rate as the Union’s Daniel Gazdag, Julian Carranza, and Mikael Uhre.

In a game that featured several key matchups, including battles between Jack Elliott and Brandon Vazquez, Jakob Glesnes and Brenner, and Alvas Powell and Kai Wagner, Union coach Jim Curtin pointed to the battle between Cincinnati’s playmaker Lucho Acosta and the Union’s Jose Martinez.

“The biggest one probably is Jose and the job he does on Acosta,” Curtin said, “because Acosta has the freedom to drift all over the field. Jose has a knack for going into tackles, and sometimes it looks like it’s all or nothing, but he always comes out with the ball. So really good game from him.”

In the 3-1 Cincinnati win at TQL Stadium in August, Acosta torched the Union with 3 assists and finished with a .78 expected goals plus expected assists (xG+xA). Brenner scored one goal and had a .83xG+xA while Vazquez also scored a goal and posted a .79 xG+xA. The difference in that game, among other defensive lapses, was Acosta’s ability to create. If the Union had any chance of keeping Cincinnati off the board, Martinez needed to play well against Acosta. Martinez put in a fine performance, slowing down the Cincinnati attack and limiting the trio to a few late chances when the visitors’ tactics changed, and the game opened up. “He [Acosta] makes them go,” Curtin added, “and if you can do your best to limit his chances, I think you have a chance to win.”

Acosta, who led MLS with 19 assists and .68 assists per 90 minutes, finished the game with 2 shots, 1 on target, and a .27 xG+xA. On the season, Acosta averaged .66 non-penalty xG+xA. Brenner finished with 2 shots, none on target, and a .4 xG+xA and Vazquez had 3 shots, 2 on target, including a late strike that Blake pushed aside, and a .22 xG+xA. Though the entire Union defense hounded the front three with several interceptions and blocked shots, Martinez limited Acosta’s dangerous touches, which disrupted the flow of the entire group, making it easier for the one-goal advantage to hold up.

It’s no surprise Martinez showed up in the big game. He’s been as good as any defensive midfielder in the league. With tireless performances, edgy battles, he’s the Union player we often look to when the tone needs to be set. But how does one quantify Martinez’s contribution? We know he’s not an attacking juggernaut. With 3 assists on the season and 0 goals, he’s taken 30 shots with 4 of them finding the target. He has the reputation of a bruiser, but his 39 tackles are tied for 17th in the league and his 44 fouls committed are not even the highest on the team. Carranza’s 72 fouls are 2nd in MLS, followed by Bedoya and Burke with 45, both tied for 13th. He gets after the ball, but not on the same level as some of his teammates. Either. His 46 interceptions are tied for 14th in MLS, trailing Glesnes (57, 5th), Wagner (55, 7th), and Flach (50, tied for 11th).

Martinez does lead the Union yellow cards (10) and was the second of three players to be sent off (Carranza and Wagner) when he picked up two yellows in the second half of the Union’s 1-0 loss at Chicago in June. So, Jose Martinez is a menace, yet he’s not the most menacing. He’s efficient defensively when it comes to pressures, tackles, and interceptions, but not near the top, and he’s not as frequent a fouler as many would believe. What about the it factors? Is that a data point that can be measured? How well a player stops the opposing team’s best players from performing their jobs. If there is a way to measure it factor, he’d have to be near the top.

Instead, we’re left with analyzing his performances against his creative counterparts and limiting their efficiency. In the Eastern Conference Final against New York City FC, Martinez will likely match up with Maxi Moralez, a former Best XI and MLS Cup winner last season. The two have battled in the past, but Moralez hasn’t fared as well when going up against Martinez, and the Union midfielder will need another strong performance to limit Moralez’s effectiveness.

Moralzez has had a slight dip in attacking numbers in 2022. With 4 goals and 8 assists, he’s averaging .38 assists/90 and was tied for 9th in the league with 63 key passes. But he’d picked it up in the postseason, scoring a goal in each of NYCFC’s playoff wins. On the season, Moralez has a .46 np xG+xA/90. In two games against the Union this season, he had 1 shot in each game and averaged .2 xG+xA. The Union won both times, 2-0 at Yankee Stadium in March and 2-1 at Subaru Park in June.

But it’s not just Maxi Moralez who’s had trouble against Martinez and the Union. Hany Mukhtar, the MVP frontrunner, and league leader with 23 goals and 11 assists, had a season average .73 npxG+xA. Agianst the Union, at home in May, he finished with 1 shot on target and a .38 xG+xA. Carles Gil, a former MVP, and arguably still the league’s best player, led the league in key passes and finished the season with 14 assists, good for.43 assists/90 and .51 npxG+xA. In two games, he had 1 assist and averaged .71 npxG+xA, higher than his league average. But the Union drew 1-1 on the road and won 2-1 at home against last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners. Lucas Zelarayan, former MLS Cup MVP, averaged .49 npxG+xA for the season. Against the Union in April, he finished with 3 shots, none on target, and a .37 xG+xA. Martinez did not play in the second game at Columbus in July, and Zelarayan had 5 shots, 2 on target, with a .49 xG+xA against a double pivot of Alejandro Bedoya and Leon Flach.

In Sunday’s Eastern Conference Final, the stars will be expected to shine on both sides of the ball. We may see the creatives, Gazdag, Moralez, Rodriguez, and Carranza, on display. We’ll see the power of the center backs, Glesnes, Elliott, Martins, Callens, (maybe Chanot), and the leadership of the experienced goalkeepers, Blake and Johnson. But the difference in the Union reaching their first MLS Cup just may come down to the gritty competitiveness of Jose Martinez, who in many ways has become the heartbeat of the team and the fans who will pack Subaru Park, many of whom will be seeking revenge for last year’s disappointment.