Major League Soccer

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Atlanta United's challenge to overtake New York City FC for the top spot in the Eastern Conference ahead of Wednesday night's showdown in the Bronx became exponentially tougher with star striker Josef Martinez ruled out through injury.

"It's a big game, I mean Atlanta is there in second place, so it is going to be difficult," NYCFC midfielder Keaton Parks said. "They always play well even without Josef Martinez they have a lot of quality players. Same with us though, so it's going to be a good game and hopefully we can get a win at home."

Martinez, whose MLS record 15-game goal-scoring streak also came to an end during Saturday's 3-1 victory over San Jose, appeared to twist his right knee and ankle after colliding with a teammate in the second half. The Venezuela international initially tried to play through the pain but hobbled off the pitch before being taken to the locker room on a stretcher.

Atlanta United coach Frank de Boer ruled out Martinez for this contest, one in which a victory would draw the reigning MLS Cup champion Five Stripes (17-11-3) within one point of NYCFC (16-5-10) for first in the conference with two matches remaining. The Dutch coach did say the forward did not have any ligament damage and that "nothing is broken."

"You predict the worst at that moment or you think the worst, so I was predicting maybe four weeks out or something like that," de Boer told ProSoccer USA on Monday. "Right now it doesn't look so bad, but it's quite early to say. We have a good feeling that hopefully he can return quicker than we thought."

Martinez's absence leaves a gaping hole in Atlanta United's attack. The Venezuelan is third in the MLS with 26 goals, trailing only Carlos Vela (28) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (27) and has totaled a staggering 80 goals in 88 matches over all competitions since joining Atlanta United, which has already won the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup this year ahead of its title defense starting next month.

No one else on United has more than four goals in league play this season, with de Boer expected to choose between Brandon Vazquez and Hector Villalba to lead the line as Martinez's replacement.

"You cannot replace that," de Boer said of Martinez's offensive production. "You need that. It means that other players have to step up, other guys who will replace him. I have to deal with it. I can't be sitting crying in the corner knowing that he's not there. I'm still positive."

New York City FC coach Dome Torrent has personnel issues of his own up front as first-choice striker and leading goal-scorer Heber is still on the mend with a quad injury expected to keep him out of this match and Sunday's contest at New England. The Bronx Blues, though, pushed their unbeaten streak to eight matches (6-0-2) Sunday with a 1-1 draw at FC Dallas.

Heber's understudy Valentin Castellanos scored 39 seconds into the contest, ending a five-match goal-scoring drought while netting the fastest goal in club history, but a turnover midway through the second half by Alexander Ring led to NYCFC conceding the equalizer and squandering a chance to move six points clear in the East.

Torrent felt the match changed when Anton Tinnerholm, who set up Castellanos' goal, was forced off midway through the first half following a collision as NYCFC lost its offensive spark in the second half when FC Dallas took the game to his side.

"In the first 30 minutes we could have scored two or three goals, but after that we were lacking," Torrent observed. "We played maybe 30-35 minutes amazing, maybe the best away game. But also, it was the worst, we had to change Anton (Tinnerholm) and we lose the control and we don't keep the ball."

Martinez had a brace on either side of halftime to power Atlanta to a 2-1 victory at home Aug. 11. Heber pulled one back late for NYCFC, which is 0-3-1 all-time in Atlanta and 0-4-2 in the series since winning the first meeting between the teams in 2017.

Updated September 23, 2019

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