Mine Hill midfielder heading to U.S. Soccer residency

Mine Hill midfielder heading to U.S. Soccer residency

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Mine Hill midfielder heading to U.S. Soccer residency

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Even when Cristian Martinez was just kicking a soccer ball around with his older brother James and their dad Moses at their Mine Hill home, he already had big dreams.

Martinez wants to play professional soccer –or if that doesn’t work out, use the game to get him into a top-tier college.

Martinez is certainly on his way now. He moved to Bradenton, Fla. on Saturday to join U.S. Soccer’s under-17 residency program. Tommy McCabe, a rare freshman on Delbarton’s varsity soccer team last fall, was also invited to the unique program at IMG Academy.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” said Martinez, one of two starting freshmen in Morris Catholic’s midfield last fall. “I was shocked, because it was my first camp, and I didn’t think it was possible to just be a new guy going through. … As soon as I finished reading (the invitation), I said yes. I was just so happy, I called my dad and told him I wanted to go.”

Martinez and McCabe, both defenders, had been among 44 players called to the national training center in Carson, Calif. in mid-July for a U-15 training camp with Middletown’s Richie Williams, the U-17 head coach. It was Martinez’ first exposure to this level of soccer, but he wasn’t intimidated. Instead, he calmly managed both the offense and defense from his center back position.

“Off the field, I tried making friends, but I changed my attitude on the field and did what I had to do,” said Martinez, who commuted more than 90 minutes each way to train with Tab Ramos’ New Jersey Soccer Academy last year.

“What I did on the field made everybody become my friend. It was easy to talk to everybody after that.”

Martinez received the official invitation via email in mid-August. He was also called in as a guest player with the Red Bulls U-14 team in the Next Generation Trophy in Salzburg, Austria. The Red Bulls held Manchester City’s youth team to a scoreless draw, then defeated Hoffenheim of Germany, 3-1, to advance to a quarterfinal where they were shut out by Red Bull Brazil.

Martinez started playing organized soccer with the Mine Hill recreation team, then moved to Mount Olive, New Jersey Rangers and Ironbound. He played in Red Bull’s youth system for a year, where he met Antonio Meza. When Meza moved on to become the coaching director at NJSA, Martinez followed. Meza worked with Martinez on NJSA’s U-15 team, and brought him to a showcase with the U-18s.

“I tried to push him a bit and give him a challenge so he could keep developing,” Meza said. “He’s a great kid, very committed, very disciplined. … He’s a very good natural talent, very good with his feet. He has a very good idea about the game.”

Though Martinez had been a midfielder growing up, and even at Morris Catholic last fall, he moved to the back on his club teams. Already six feet tall at 15 years old, Martinez became a vocal leader of the defense while still showing flashes of the offensive skill he’d developed. Crusaders coach Erik Vendola saw him play in a summer 8-v-8 league just before the invitation to residency came, and Martinez “was the best player on the field.”

Added Vendola, “I knew he had the potential to get there. You could see he had all the right things going on in terms of understanding the game. … He went to national team (camp) and saw, ‘I can compete with these kids,’ and made the top 31. He realized he can do this. He’s got that drive.”

The 30 players in residency will train with Williams and the other U-17 coaches in the morning, then break for lunch and regular academic classes at St. Stephens Episcopal School in the afternoon. There’s a second training session before dinner, and a team homework session afterward. More than 100 residency players have moved on Major League Soccer or a European club since the program began in 1999, and 19 have earned at least one cap with the full men’s national team.

“It’s bittersweet for me and my father,” said James Martinez, 25, the eldest of five children. “We’re happy that he has the opportunity to continue to do what he loves to do. … We’d love for him to do it here, but we know that’s not possible. We know this decision’s going to open a lot of doors for him.”

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