Painful as it was for Sounders FC fans to a witness a win collapse into a 1-1 draw in the 91st minute, especially against the contemptible Timbers, they aren’t in for the pain of Obafemi Martins: Madrid-London-Seattle-London-Lagos in three days.
Sure, he’s a wealthy international soccer star used to travel. Still, that itinerary is just silly.
All for 20 minutes in the Saturday night match against Portland. Yes, it was a Cascadia Cup match, but I suspect his grasp of provincially monumental rivalry is a bit slim. Upon arrival at the airport around 6 p.m. Friday, a reporter asked what he knew of Seattle or the West Coast. He said, “I’ve been to Miami.”
But after joining briefly his new team following the Sounders paying his Spanish club, Levante, a reported $4 million exit fee, Martins was scheduled to fly Sunday to Lagos, capital of his native Nigeria. He’s been called up by his national team to play a World Cup qualifying match Saturday against Kenya.
Then he heads back to the far corner of North America, where he will finally practice with his new team before playing again March 30 in Salt Lake City. As NBA fans know, the Nigeria-Utah road trip has always been the worst.
Besides Martins, the Sounders will have three others departing Sunday for national-team duties: Mario Martinez (Honduras) and Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans (U.S.). At this rate, the Sounders will finally become a team around the Fourth of July.
“It’s frustrating,” said coach Sigi Schmid. “(The qualifier games) delays us just another week . . . We’re still throwing out different people at different times, so it makes it hard to get that cohesion.”
None of this roster mayhem was a particular surprise. That doesn’t make it any better. The bad surprise for Seattle was when Portland’s Rodney Wallace ran under a lazy bloop of a cross and behind the defense of DeAndre Yedlin and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado to snap in a header that froze goalie Michael Gspurning as if he were wearing concrete lederhosen.
Since Seattle had held a 1-0 lead from the 13th minute, when Steve Zakuani’s brilliant cross set up an Eddie Johnson tap-in from three yards, the shock of the extra-time goal doused the Sounders and the 40,150 at the Clink who were ready to celebrate one of the great weeks in the club’s MLS history.
The Sounders Tuesday became the first MLS team to beat a Mexican side in the knockout round of the CONCACAF Champions League with a thrilling three goals in 22 second-half minutes against Tigres. Then came word that the club, after weeks of pursuit, finally pried loose Martins, the first player to join MLS in the middle of a standout season in Europe. Martins was Levante’s leading scorer with seven goals and two more in Europa League play.
Besides the $4 million paid to his Spanish club, reports are that the Sounders are paying him a salary of $2.5 million, which in MLS is huge money. Only the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Robbie Keane is paid more.
Nothing would have been sweeter than to cap off the week with a home throttling of the Timbers. But the one point from the draw seemed a long way from the three they had in hand until the defensive nap in extra time.
A few minutes after Martins replaced Martinez in the 70th minute, he ran down a ball on the far flank and just before the end line crossed to a speeding Johnson in front of the goal, who was about a half-stride late to a 2-0 lead. The Hollywood debut was not to be.
Afterward, Martins, a 5-foot-7 powerhouse, was surrounded by curious local media, and explained that it was actually his choice to leave Europe, come to Seattle for even a part of a game, then fly to Africa.
“I’m glad that I played the game today,” he said. “I was a little bit tired from traveling, but I decided I wanted to play.
“It was a little bit hard because I had to take (extra time during the week) at the embassy. The president (Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer) wanted to me to stay in Madrid (and go from there to Lagos), but I decided to come here to see the team, and to play if possible.”
The big roar that greeted his entry into the game did not go unnoticed.
“I will say they are among the best fans,” he said. “I’ve played for a lot of clubs, and it is different here. They’re friendly and support the team. I like it.”
Schmid was impressed that Martins even tried.
“It’s difficult for him having just flown in,” he said. “We wanted to give him the opportunity, he wanted the opportunity as well, because his mind, his spirit, his soul is here and he wants us to succeed.
“We didn’t want him to play too many minutes. He laid a great ball across that Eddie was almost on the end of. He hasn’t trained with the team. He’ll get better, and the things that he can do — his quickness and things like that — will show through.”
Hard to say how repeated time zone batterings will wear on Martins, particularly since he’s been playing since late September in Europe. But he is 28, several years younger than the designated players the Sounders have hired, and it will be up to Schmid to help make sure Martins still has legs when it comes time for MLS’s playoffs in November.
By then, no one will recall a momentarily debilitating tie in March.