BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, June 2, 2010
While most American soccer players often admit to having personal goals that include moving their career overseas, it is usually implied that they are referring to a move across the Atlantic and playing in the prestigious leagues of Europe.
However this is not the case for Lyle Martin who has gone in the opposite direction. After leaving the Vancouver Whitecaps of the USL last fall, Martin instead crossed the Pacific and has become the first American to ever play in the Chinese Super League.
The unusual but interesting move in February came after Martin was looking for a new direction in his career following a successful three year stint with Vancouver.
But make no mistake that his move to China was not a sudden turn of events but rather a calculated decision with the groundwork having been laid a year earlier when a trial opportunity in China arose.
Prior to his last season with the Whitecaps, Martin went on an extended trial with Nanchang Bayi of China's second division Jia League. Afterwards, Martin chose not stay in China with Nanchang but still came away with a positive experience from his time overseas.
The idea to even go on such a trial in the first place took Martin by surprise while it was being floated to him by his agent.
"Well for me it was about trying to advance my game," Martin told YA from China. "It was not necessarily about going to a higher or lower league. My agent told me that in China there is an intense soccer league and it will add a positive dimension to my game. He was the one that proposed this idea. My reaction when he told me was probably like everyone else's out there. 'What? China? They have a league?'"
Martin finished his NCAA career at Cal State Bakersfield in 2006 where he was starter for all four years at just about every position. In his senior year, he was a prominent scorer with 17 goals in 19 games leading him to be drafted in 2007 by Chivas USA in the third round of the MLS Supplemental Draft.
However Martin did not ever play for Chivas USA and would instead sign with Vancouver where he would emerge as a starter. In his first season, the club would reach the quarterfinals of the playoffs.
In his second year, Vancouver would win the league championship after defeating Puerto Rico 2-1 in the finals. In 2009, Vancouver would return to the title game only to lose in a two-leg final to Montreal in what was his last appearance with the Whitecaps.
"I left Vancouver because I wanted to continue my growth in this game," he explained. "We won a championship and made it to the finals the following year. So for me I felt like it was time to see a new challenge. Only way to get better in this game is to be constantly challenged. And I want to be the best that I can be."
The new challenge for Martin would lead him back to China but this time it would not be with second division Nanchang Bayi but rather Shaanxi Chamba of the Super League.
"I did not know anything about Shaanxi Chanba or the league," recalled Martin. "I just trusted my agent and went with it. Shaanxi Chanba picked me up after I played against them in a preseason friendly while I was on trial with another club."
Martin signed with the Shaanxi Chanba in February. At his new club, which is based in the city of Xi'an, the capital of the Shaanxi province, he would find that it is a far cry from the playing environments of California or Vancouver. Despite the differences, he enjoys the club and has a good relationship with head coach Zhu Guanghu.
"The players treat me like I am the American, as though I represent the whole country," he said of his teammates. "I have a great relationship with the coach. He really knows how to make you feel welcome and comfortable. I can understand the coach through his limited English and the translator. But there are always diagrams he can draw out. I am also trying to learn some Chinese at a nearby school for ex-pats which will help both my game and acclimatizing to my new environment. "
Shaanxi Chanba signed the American to help bolster the club's offense. While Martin has played many different positions during his career, Zhu is using him as either an outside midfielder or a forward. It is at these positions that best utilize Martin's strengths, his speed and power.
During the club's preseason and into the first few games of the season, Martin saw little playing time as he was still adapting to his new surroundings.
This would change, however, in the fifth game when Shaanxi Chanba hosted Shenzhen in a very important league game. With only two points from its first four games, Shaanxi Chanba needed a win at home to avoid falling further back in standings.
Expectations had been high entering the season and a win over a quality club in Shenzhen would keep Shaanxi Chanba within striking distance of the top of the 16-team league.
With the score tied at 2-2 in the 90th minute, Martin received the ball off a chip over the defense just inside the 18. He collected the ball with a terrific first touch, quickly turned and fired it into the net.
His last minute game winner made him not only the first American to play in the Chinese Super League, but also the first American to score. For Martin, it was career accomplishment to score a history making goal in such dramatic fashion.
"I can't put it in words," Martin described. "I was overjoyed with the goal, not only for myself, but also for my teammates and the club. We needed this win. Now the supporters, they were something else. The reaction was the loudest that I have heard a crowd in a very long time. They cheered until we were back in the locker room."
"My teammates were beyond happy and you could see that everyone felt like a weight was lifted from us," Martin continued. "Leading up to the goal all I was thinking was run and hard work. The team had been playing well the whole match and we had the opponents on their heels and I knew if I could find a gap in the defense we could punish them. It was one of those goals that you do without thinking. Your body just knows what to do. It was a history-making goal me."
In the Super League, teams consist mostly of Chinese players, with just a few notable foreigners on the roster. Shaanxi Chanba is no different. Martin finds himself among a foreign group of players that consist of Ivory Coast-born but potential Australian international Jonas Salley, Brazilian defender Célio Ferreira dos Santos, former Inter Milan and Sierra Leone international Mohamed Kallon and French journeyman Cédric Sabin.
Despite a start that is below expectations, Martin is impressed with his team's quality and is confident in their ability to remain a force in the league
"China Super League is a 'fit mans' league," Martin assessed. "There is constant movement and running off the ball. Most of the players here are very technical. What some players may lack in speed and strength is most definitely made up by their technical ability. Shaanxi Chanba FC is a quality club with quality players."
"There is a lot for me to learn this season from players that have played in top leagues," Martin continued. "Right now in the league we are fine. Our problem is that we did not have much of a preseason together to truly get to know one another. With a bit more time it will all fall into place, you will see. The coach has a great system and we are now beginning to gel as a team."
Having played in California and Vancouver for his whole career, Martin is impressed with the passion shown by the crowds since moving to China. The crowd's size and intensity creates environments typically found only in South America and Europe.
"The atmosphere here in the China Super League is amazing. I did not know that they love the game the way they do here. Our first game I was told we had 50,000 people in the stadium and on a normal basis we get around 35,000. At least half of the fans are wearing the team colors and chanting the whole game. It is a great place to be. In comparison with MLS and USL there are clubs that get amazing fans and true supporters, but it doesn't seem to be as die hard as it is here in China."
Now having been at the club since February, Martin has had the time to evaluate not just his team and the league but also the new culture that is now part of his daily life. While he is enjoying it, he does find the drastic change to be difficult in terms of the language.
"I do enjoy daily life here. It's different from what I'm used to but you only live once," Martin described. "I am blessed to be able to go out and see the world while being able to do what I love. It gets no better than that. The only negative at this point would have to be the language, which can be an easy fix with some classes. A normal day would consist of a team meal followed by some training. Finally, I hang out with the other foreign players and tour the city."
Aside from the very significant language barrier that Martin faces in China, there are also significant differences in everyday life to which Martin must adjust.
"For me the most unusual thing I witnessed was the traffic and the way that they drive here. All I can say is it is crazy. They are driving through red lights and cutting people off. Bikes are carrying ten boxes and in the midst of the crazy traffic. Babies are on scooters with no helmets. It just does not seem real. Having said that, there are actually less accidents here."
While experiencing and living in a new culture is a great aspect of playing in the Chinese Super League for Martin, his main goal is to help his club and improve as a player.
The approach he uses to develop as a player remains the same in China as the one he had while with the Stockdale High School Mustangs, Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners and the Vancouver Whitecaps.
"Every season, be it youth team, college or professional, my personal goals are set up into two categories," Martin admitted. "One is where the bar is set pretty high - so high that people would call you crazy for thinking that way. Like being the league's MVP and breaking the scoring record."
"The second being goals that can be obtained with continuous hard work," Martin continued. "Such as completing 90% of my passes each game, every shot being on target, and being the hardest working player on the field. I think in my first year here I would like to do all that is expected of me when they brought me in and a little more. I will have to reassess at the end of the season for next year."
As Martin aims to improve his game and help Shaanxi Chanba in the Super League, Martin is also very proud of the fact that he is breaking ground for soccer players from his home country and possibly opening the door towards having more Americans players play professionally in China.
The Chinese Super League is still very much a mystery to even the most passionate American fans but with the sport growing at a significant rate in the world's most populated country, the potential that the Chinese Super League could become a top tier league. If that does indeed happen, Martin will have become a truly groundbreaking figure.
"Some people say that I can open the door to more Americans playing here," Martin concluded. "I hope that I may have opened doors for many others like me in the USA. Now I don't know if that is the case, but I hope so and if so, I will work that much harder for the next American that wants to try this league. Also the fact that I am doing what I love feels amazing."