By: Gary L. Moody Jr. | Photo: Ric Kruszynski / ISNSoccer
While American soccer fans are focused on the match WCQ USA vs. Panama match in World Cup qualifying, one of Panama’s top young talents is already plying his trade in MLS with Columbus Crew SC. Cristian Martinez, a talented midfielder from El Chorrillo, Panama City, is one of just nine current Panamanian players competing in MLS. While Martinez may not have the notoriety of past Panamanian stars like Jaime Penedo, Blas Pérez, and Luis Tejeda right now, he is indeed a star in the making. The 20-year-old is just waiting for his opportunity.
Martinez has been impressive in eight regular season appearances (one start) with Crew SC this season. He also made a start for FC Cincinnati while on loan in addition to providing a game-winning assist for Ola Kamara in a friendly between Crew SC and Eintracht Frankfurt.
“It has been a bit hard for me because I didn't play much at the beginning but now little by little I've been getting minutes,” Martinez commented. “I have to keep working so I can keep getting minutes. The team has done well compared to last year. I hope we can continue with this streak we're on.”
2016 was also a solid season for Martinez as he made five regular season appearances (two starts) and scored a goal for the Black & Gold. He also made two starts for Columbus in the U.S. Open Cup and scored a goal against the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the tourney.
Martinez has been impressed with what he’s seen in MLS and American soccer as a whole.
“The level in MLS is very high and very good,” Martinez noted. “The level is superior to the level in Panama in every sense: the quality is good, the soccer is good, the league is good. By comparison, everything is better here than in Panama.”
He’s still widely regarded as the “next big thing” in Panamanian soccer, playing for his country on four occasions. Martinez has earned two caps for the full Panama National Team in 2016, coming in as a substitute against El Salvador and starting against Nicaragua.
While with Crew SC, he was also called in for two friendlies with the Panama Under-20 National Team against Peru. He started and wore the captain's armband in the first match, scoring a goal as Panama won by a 4-1 final. He again started and served as captain in the rematch just two days later.
“It's nice to wear the colors of your country and to try to do things well so you can be called up again,” Martinez continued. “I’m going to work twice as hard so I can get another opportunity with Panama's national team.”
The Central American country is now on the verge of World Cup qualification, but that shouldn’t come as any surprise.
“Soccer’s very popular there,” Martinez added. “Little by little Panamanian soccer is growing which is good for the players that play over there and for those of us that played in that league.”
We’re talking about a player that made his first team debut with Chorrillo FC at the tender age of 15, moving through the ranks at the club after joining the club as a U-9 player. Martinez described his debut with his hometown club as “unforgettable.” Few players reach that level and to do so at such a young age is incredibly impressive.
Martinez has shined in both training and in games, playing best in a central or outside role. It doesn’t hurt that he is being mentored by one of the world’s best, Federico Higuain.
“Here at the club Pipa always talks to me,” Martinez said. “He tells me to keep trying and doing things well because things will come by themselves.”
Martinez’s current goals include becoming a great player, going far in the game, and doing things well. He’s already mastered the transition to the American game and is enjoying his time here.
“I like the league,” Martinez concluded. “Also, it's a good place to live, a quiet place, very pretty. The most difficult thing has been learning English, speaking it. I'm learning slowly, but it's hard.”
Martinez has the makings of a great player: natural talent, an unlimited skill set, high coachability, a strong work ethic, and a passion to be the very best.
Remember the name Cristian Martinez as you’ll hear much more about him in the years to come. He’s destined for stardom in MLS and on the international stage. He’s really that good.