The first time Enzo Martinez ever touched a ball in his MLS career, it was three minutes into the Colorado Rapids match against defending MLS Champs Toronto FC in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League match last Tuesday in Commerce City.
Justin Morrow lofted a cross towards Jozy Altidore as Tim Howard barked out orders. That’s Justin Morrow, a starter in the US Men’s National Team last match, swinging in a ball to USMNT star, former English Premier League Striker, and TFC goal-machine Jozy Altidore, while Tim Howard—American Hero, Secretary of Defense, Everton legend—called out the play. The ball bobbled off a couple players in the box. Martinez stepped in and won the second ball. It was nothing he hadn’t done a thousand other times on a soccer field. But this time, the stage, the level, and the cast of characters around him were much, much bigger than before.
You might guess that a guy like Enzo Martinez, who was riding buses and carrying his own luggage to inglorious locales like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Edinburg, Texas in the USL just four months ago, might feel a little overwhelmed at the moment. Intimidated, even.
“When that whistle blows, nothing matters,” Martinez said after the match. “You can’t play with a name in soccer, whether you’re the greatest or the worst player in the world.”
While Colorado Rapids fans may have seen players like Tommy Smith or Danny Wilson play in the better-known leagues in Europe, they’ve probably overlooked the guys toiling for the Rapids USL-affiliate Charlotte Independence. That’s just as well: no player from Charlotte has ever stuck with the Rapids in the four-year history of the formal affiliation between the Independence and the Rapids. (The Rapids did call up Ben Newnam for one match in 2015, Yann Ekra was on trial with the team in 2016, and several Rapids players have gone to Charlotte on loan.)
So it might be normal for Rapids fans to have little or no regard for Independence players, or to expect that they might be a bit out of their league here in MLS. But Martinez is comfortable in Colorado. Soccer isn’t about Cinderella stories or playing against big stars for him.
“It’s about moments. It’s about seconds. It’s about decisions,” he explains. “I’m happy for the opportunity, but I want to win just like anyone else does.”
Martinez understands that he’s been given a shot at the big-time—a shot that hundreds of other USL players will never, ever see. “To be honest, I feel very blessed for the opportunity to the team, the club, it’s a dream for me to be here.”
Enzo was born in Uruguay but was raised here in the US in South Carolina. After winning the NCAA Championship with the University of North Carolina in 2011 and being drafted by Real Salt Lake in 2012, his soccer career stalled. The 5’7” midfielder played on loan with NASL’s Carolina Railhawks in 2013 and joined the team fully in 2014 after RSL let him go.
He signed with the Charlotte Independence in 2015 and had all-star seasons with the club in 2016 and 2017. While with Charlotte, he had the good fortune to play alongside his younger brother, Alex, who will be with the USL team back in North Carolina for the 2018 season. At 27 years old and with six professional seasons under his belt, it has been a long time coming for Enzo to reach this moment.
But he’s here not here as ‘Enzo Martinez - Rapids Hopeful’ or ‘Enzo Martinez - Reserve Squad Journeyman.’ He’s here as a full-fledged member of the Colorado Rapids. When asked about personal goals for 2018, he answers that he “wants to help the team win games.” When asked about how he played in the CCL match, he answered: “Today didn’t go our way.” For Martinez, it’s not ‘I’. it’s ‘we’.
It’s clear the team believes he can help them win games. Martinez was selected as a starter in this important CCL match over Rapids players with a bevy soccer experience at top-level teams in Germany, Sweden, England, and the US.
As I finished my interview with Martinez after the game in the mixed zone, my departure was blocked by Michael Bradley, the USMNT captain and perhaps the best all-around midfielder in Major League Soccer, who was standing just two feet from Martinez.
Martinez didn’t even notice him. Martinez isn’t here to play with the best. He’s here to be the best. He’s here to help the team win. He belongs here, now. And he will spend the rest of the season proving it.