Tata Martino’s quandary: Start Josef Martinez or Leo Campana vs. Atlanta United Saturday

MATIAS J. OCNER/mocner@miamiherald.com

Tata Martino faces one of his more difficult decisions since taking over at Inter Miami coach in July: Whether to start Josef Martinez or Leo Campana at center forward Saturday on the road against Atlanta United, a team with which Martino and Martinez share deep history.

Campana was named MLS Player of the Week after scoring two goals in a 3-1 victory over Sporting Kansas City last weekend and has been productive of late with five goals over the past five games. Martinez, who missed the KC game while on national duty with Venezuela, had been Martino’s preferred starter, but has just one goal over his previous five outings.

Both players will be highly motivated to extend the team’s 12-game unbeaten streak and continue closing the gap in the playoff race, but the game is particularly special for Martinez, the former Atlanta United star, who will be making his first return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in front of a crowd expected to exceed 50,000.

Martinez was instrumental in Atlanta winning a trio of major trophies during his time there, including the 2018 MLS Cup. He was named MLS MVP during that championship season. Martino was the coach of that team and will also make his first return to Atlanta on Saturday.

During his time with Atlanta United, Martinez scored a club record 111 goals, including 98 in league play. He underwent two knee surgeries in 2020 and 2022, struggled to regain his form, and Atlanta bought down his contract last winter, allowing him to sign with Miami.

Although things ended on a sad note between Martinez and Atlanta United, the club is planning to honor him with a pregame ceremony on Saturday.

As Martino weighs his options, both Martinez and Campana offer unique strengths. Martinez is more familiar with the Atlanta United players, the artificial turf and atmosphere at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Campana, at 6-2, is six inches taller than Martinez and a threat in the air. Three of his goals in the past few weeks have been off headers.

“Leo is in a head-to-head battle with Josef for one spot in the center of the attack,” Martino said last week. “When you have two number 9’s, as we have with Josef and Leo, one is not going to get as many minutes, but they both have to be ready to take advantage of their opportunities.”

Martino was pleased with Campana’s performance as a starter against Kansas City, as Miami proved it could win without Lionel Messi, who was away with the Argentine national team. Messi sat out Argentina’s game against Bolivia on Tuesday night, returned to South Florida and should be rested and ready for the Atlanta game.

Martino is expected to provide an update on Messi’s status Friday morning, but his starting lineup won’t be known until just before game time.

“Leo [Campana] played a very good game, independent of the two goals he scored,” said Martino after the Kansas City game. “He was very involved in the play all night, he partnered well with Facundo [Farias], was getting in scoring positions regularly and it was nice to see because he is a young man who has worked very hard.”

Campana and Martinez have both spoken about their competition for the starting role and stressed that it is a healthy competition.

“Josef and I have a great relationship, on and off the field,” Campana said. “When he plays, I support him, and he supports me when I play. I think we complement each other very well…Of course, it’s hard for any player to be on the bench, but (Martino) is showing confidence in me, giving me opportunities, and I know if I keep working hard and believing in myself, the rest will come.”

The game Saturday kicks off at 5 p.m. and will be broadcast on Apple TV with an MLS Season Pass subscription.