SANDY — Throughout its history, Real Salt Lake has found, developed and produced several top-class strikers.
From Alvaro Saborio to Yura Movsisyan, RSL’s best teams have come with that center forward who can score from the middle of the park and hold up play long enough to let his wingers get involved in the attack.
Could Douglas Martinez Jr. be the next great?
No pressure to the 23-year-old Honduran, but he’s on his way.
Martinez’s debut in the MLS is Back Tournament impressed coaches and teammates of the former Real Monarchs standout who signed with RSL’s second-division USL Championship side last year.
Even if he didn’t score a goal.
“He was great tonight throughout the time he played,” said RSL midfielder Albert Rusnak, shortly after scoring the opening goal in a 2-0 win over rival Colorado. “He did a lot of work, and he did a lot of dirty work for us. When you have a No. 9 who is fast, strong and who puts in the work defensively for the team, you can’t ask for much more than that.”
Martinez figures to be in consideration for the starting lineup again as Real Salt Lake faces Minnesota United, which is off to a surprise 3-0-0 start in 2020. That includes a 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City, which included a 97th-minute match-winner by Kevin Molino that put the Loons in position to clinch a spot in the knockout rounds with a win over RSL.
Real Salt Lake, too, can clinch its own knockout-round berth with a win Friday. Plenty is on the line.
More impressive in the opener may be that Martinez wasn’t originally in RSL’s plans for the starting XI. During the lead up to last Sunday’s tournament opener, the young forward was playing against most of the starting XI — and he was “a handful,” RSL coach Freddy Juarez said.
“He was forcing us to run and chase, and he was in the box, and he was making runs in behind, and he was big and strong to hold it,’ Juarez added. “We liked what we saw. We thought with the balance that we had with Damir and Albert (Rusnak) in the game, we also needed a couple of players who could stretch the game but also be physical with (Vincent) Aboubakar. We have to match that up and he was great.”
Martinez’s work rate did more than score, or even assist, in many ways. He had a goal called back for an offside penalty in RSL's 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls in their only match at Rio Tinto Stadium to date, but he has done more than score goals in his position up top.
The lean 6-footer drove a cross into the box in the 27th minute that was parried by Colorado goalkeeper Clint Irwin — to the feet of Rusnak, who banged in the first goal.
In the second half, Martinez also drew a penalty kick — one taken by Rusnak that Irwin saved, but that also set up a counter that led to Kreilach’s strike just four minutes later.
In all, Martinez put up two shots with a shot on target and conceded one foul while drawing two in 77 minutes of play.
“We were all happy and proud of him,” Juarez said. “He’s a young player. We ask a lot of him. He’s going to continue to grow. We just have to guide him little by little, but he was huge for us tonight.”
And that, perhaps, is the key: even if Martinez didn’t score in his MLS is Back tournament debut, his teammates and coaches recognize what he did on and off the ball — and hope that more is to come.
He’s still young, after all. Still growing. Still figuring out Major League Soccer, in many ways.
“He has proven his qualities in training throughout the past two months, and rightly so,” Rusnak said of Martinez. “He got the start and showed that he’s got a lot of potential for the future. I hope he’ll continue to work hard, and the future will show what’s there for him. As I said before, today was an outstanding performance from him.”
MLS is Back Tournament
Real Salt Lake vs. Minnesota United FC
Friday, July 17 at 8:30 p.m. MDT
Radio: ESPN 700