All last summer, as RSL fans, we collectively held our breath as we waited for Waibel and Co to announce a much awaited, and oft promised, BIG SIGNING. Late in August Juan Manuel "El Burrito" Martinez was announced as the club’s first truly marquee signing.
In his first season with RSL, coming into the season at the time he did, Burrito only played in 8 games, starting 7 of them (in MLS play). In that time he notched 1 goal and 1 assist, and was clearly finding his feet in a new city, with a new team, after no real pre-season, and in a system that the team itself was still trying to figure out. Making an impact, especially in MLS, as a summer transfer is next to unheard of. Most, if not all, players who come in during that window struggle as they try to get accustomed to the speed and style of play in the league. Burrito had very few games to get comfortable before the end of the season. In those few games, however, you could see not only how important he would be to RSL but also how well he could eventually fit in as a crucial piece going forward.
There is a rumor of a story that has been floating around since the end of last season. I’ve heard it a few times, but I feel like recounting it here is appropriate. Every year as the season ends the team holds exit interviews. Players meet with staff to discuss off season training and with Craig to discuss how they felt the year went and to talk about the future. In his exit interview Burrito is told to have commented that he was at about 75% by the end of the season and that he looked forward to getting to 100%.
So, the question stands: Is Burrito better this year than last year?
There are so many ways to look at that question. Trying to come to a conclusion based on any number of things this early in the season might be a stretch, at best. But an argument exists for the simple answer of, yes of course.
When looking at the matches that have been played this year, Burrito stands out in every single one. His movement on and off the ball have been spectacular. His passing has been clinical. His presence has been felt.
Creating opportunities for others
One of the things that has stood out more than the others is the way that opposing defenders are being forced to respect him in any given match. Every single team that we have played has played him very aggressively, especially when he is on the ball. This may slow down his production as far as goals and assists goes, but it will do wonders for the rest of the team. Two or three defenders with an eye on Burrito means more space for Plata and Yura. With both of them also playing well it’s very likely that defenses will not know what to do when it comes to defensive assignments vs RSL.
Creating goal scoring chances
The respect that defenders are giving him is definitely earned. We’re seeing more and more just how dangerous he is with the ball at his feet. He’s creating moments of genius deftly dribbling through and around defenders, and putting passes on a dime. A defender has to respect that. A great example is the Joao goal in the opening match at Orlando.
In the clip Burrito has the ball on the far sideline and has drawn two defenders to him, with Tony a few yards in front of him and his defender shadowing. He dribbles and splits the two defenders, drawing Shea away from Tony allowing him to get in behind. A little bit of a hold up from Burrito to let the play catch up with him and nice pass to Tony on the diagonal run gets RSL in on goal and on the score sheet.
There are a lot of good examples of what Martinez brings to RSL, but I feel like this is a great sampling of how important he will be to the success we may see this season. He beats defenders, is aware of who is in front of him, makes a great pass, and then finishes his run. Add to that his defensive tenacity, willingness to come back to a ball and get stuck in on a tackle, and overall soccer IQ and you have a very important piece in the RSL machine.