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MARTINS AND SEATTLE: MARRIAGE MADE IN HEAVEN

MARTINS AND SEATTLE: MARRIAGE MADE IN HEAVEN

–How elusive Nigerian striker found a new lease of life and transformed the Sounders

Obafemi Martins’ second season with the Sounders has been a revelation. Here’s how the Nigerian striker bonded with his teammates and became a leader on and off the field.

Martins, a forward for the Sounders, is a native of Nigeria and has played soccer all over the world. He leads the team in goals (17) and assists (13).

Where others see cracks, Martins sees crevasses. He pokes and prods, slipping through the tiny gaps in defenses toward game-altering goals.

To fully understand the Sounders’ MLS MVP candidate, you have to pull up a YouTube video — but not one of his goals.

Study, instead, the Giant Pacific Octopus.

Type this in to YouTube: “Octopus escaping through a 1 inch diameter hole.” No matter how many times you watch the video, the ending is always a surprise.

The creature slips a tentacle-spotted leg through the tiny opening in the glass cage. Another meaty limb follows the first through the gap, one the circumference of a lemon. Another is close behind, then again, all the way to eight. Finally, the grand finale: The head starts worming its way through, a self-deflating beach ball.

Slowly, then suddenly, pop, the octopus is free.

Now picture Martins, the Seattle striker, skirting around the edge of a defense, sensing the open space and emerging out the other side.

That’s what he has done all season, and it’s one of the main reasons the Sounders won the Supporters’ Shield with the best record in MLS.

“What makes him so good is his elusiveness,” said Sounders FC defender Jalil Anibaba.

“They’re those playmakers that pull rabbits out of the hat, and you just don’t know how,” Sounders right back DeAndre Yedlin said.
Watch Martins’ goal against Portland in Providence Park on Aug. 24.
The play begins with two Timber defenders closing Martins out on the left wing. The 5-foot-7 forward first shows them the back of his jersey, then splits them with a sudden spin move. Another defender steps up, and Martins plays a give-and-go with midfielder Gonzalo Pineda to wheel around him.

“That kind of play, you never know,” Martins said slowly, trying out each word for size, searching for the right breakdown. “You just keep trying. I had the ball, I turned around and there were two defenders. I saw Pineda, and he gave me the perfect ball in front of me.”

Two more opponents lunge at Martins and he stumbles, hair bobbing, the ball tangled beneath his feet. He regains his composure just in time, dragging the ball through a trio of dumbfounded green-shirted onlookers and — pop — is suddenly alone on goal to finish over Donovan Ricketts.

“You never know what you can do on the pitch unless you try,” said Martins, 30. “You can’t say, ‘this is what I’m going to do.’ That’s not soccer, man.”

The Lagos, Nigeria native started his pro soccer career in Italy with A.C. Reggiana in the third tier. He moved to Inter Milan and the grand stage of the European Champions league next.

There, he scored 28 goals in 88 league appearances for the Serie A powerhouse plus another 11 in European competitions, including one against Bayer Leverkusen that booked Inter’s place in the 2003 Champions League semifinals. But Martins refuses to single out one finish as a favorite.

“I’ve scored a lot of goals, man,” Martins said. “All my goals are beautiful.”

When he left Inter in 2006, his life continued in a whirlwind.

“I can play anywhere,” said Martins, who had stops at Newcastle United in England, VfL Wolfsburg in Germany, Rubin Kazan in Russia and Levante in Spain before he moved to the United States to play for the Sounders last spring. It was a move he pushed for.

Yet his first season in Seattle was underwhelming, for himself and for his club.

Martins scored eight goals in 20 appearances — but was held scoreless as Seattle went winless in the final seven games of the regular season.

This season has been a different story.

The transformation, the first leg onto the other side of the glass, began with the arrival of Anibaba and the discovery of some shared roots.

Though Anibaba, who came in the offseason, was raised in California, his family comes from the same part of Nigeria where Martins grew up. The veteran striker quizzed the younger player about it on his first day with the team.

“When you’re both from Lagos and you speak the language — we’re even from the same tribe — it makes it much easier,” Martins said during a recent interview, his cadence picking up pace, a smile widening across his face.

Martins has taken on a mentoring role with Anibaba — long conversations on the team bus, family dinners downtown — and this season opened up around the rest of the team, as well.

Martins, who came in midway through last season, credits his first full preseason with the Sounders — trips to Arizona and South Carolina, the team lunches and dinners with little to do — with his stronger bond with teammates.

“Just talking about life,” Martins said. “We’re like a proper family now.”

The Sounders have said all season that improved team chemistry has helped them weather adversity, like when Seattle rebounded from a 2-0 deficit in Los Angeles to keep the Supporters’ Shield race in its favor. It all starts at the top, with designated players like Martins and Dempsey.

“If you were a fly in the wall on the locker room, you’d have no idea who made what,” Anibaba said. “That’s how it’s supposed to be, but in this profession, that’s more rare than you would think.

“They (Martins and Dempsey) have the power and the ability to set the tone in the locker room. From day one, those guys have been dialed in.”

“Just keep trying, pushing”

To fans, Martins can seem enigmatic. He keeps his personal life somewhat under wraps but one can get glimpses of it if they follow his Instragram feed, one filled with photos of his son and a black Mercedez-Benz.

Martins can float in and out of games, especially when he’s in a goal-scoring drought and those fissures he craves are tighter than usual. To his teammates, though, Martins’ influence is never in doubt.

“Looking at the numbers, you can see why he’s part of the MVP (discussion),” Seattle midfielder Lamar Neagle said. “But it’s the things that he brings outside those numbers. Some guys don’t come to this league and work that hard, but they can still get the numbers. He (Martins) still works hard defensively. He’s still pushing his team to be better.”

Martins has scored a club-record 17 goals this season and dished out 13 assists. His team has already won the U.S. Open Cup and the Supporters’ Shield, with the MLS Cup in its sights.

Watch Martins pop into space, the octopus surging into open water, with just the goalie to beat. No matter how many times he does it, the defense is forever caught by surprise.

“You just keep trying, keep pushing, and whatever happens, happens,” Martins said.

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