Former Northwestern soccer star Enzo Martinez arrived in Uruguay on Sunday, marking the first time hes visited his native country in over 13 years.
But Martinez has business besides visiting relatives he hasnt seen since 2000 and getting a tan beneath the summer sun. His agent has lined up tryouts with several Uruguayan clubs, including first-division outfit Defensor Sporting.
The hope is to get a stalled career moving again. Drafted two years ago by Major League Soccer club Real Salt Lake, Martinez has yet to play in a competitive game for the team, a vexing situation that he hasnt been able to unravel.
To me its a mystery, he said. Every time I spoke to the coach, he was really happy with how good I was playing, how hard I was working and that he appreciated that, and that he wasnt willing to let me go to another team because he knew I was good enough.
Real Salt Lake actually waived Martinez on Thursday, which should make him a free agent, but because of league rules, does not. Real Salt Lake still owns Martinezs rights in MLS, meaning he can play in any other league, including USL Pro or lower, or in another country. But he cant play in MLS for another team until Salt Lake relinquishes his rights, a move they dont have to make until next year. As Martinez put it, Im a free agent anywhere in the world, except MLS.
Martinez, who won an NCAA title with North Carolina in 2011, asked Salt Lake to sell him to another club so he could get game time, but the team brass declined.
My agent has tried to find me other teams in MLS, but Real Salt Lake keeps saying no, Martinez said. Its a weird situation because I havent played.
Last fall, he was afforded a loan spell to the Carolina Railhawks, based in Cary, N.C., an opportunity he seized upon, scoring three goals and assisting on two more in just six games for the USL Pro division side. He also lived with his brother, Alex, a senior at N.C. State. Martinez made enough of an impression that the Railhawks extended him an offer for the upcoming season.
I think it was exactly what I needed, he said. I just wanted to be playing. It was better than training (at Salt Lake) every day and not getting any game time. I felt I did really good. The coaches and the staff at Carolina were really happy and they told me before I left that if anything happens with Salt Lake, Wed love to have you here.
Hed like to make an impact with Salt Lake, though. Martinez said he had a very good relationship with the clubs recently departed coach, Jason Kreis. That made the teams refusal to play him in competitive games all the more puzzling. Kreis was named the head coach of the newest MLS side, New York F.C., and assistant coach Jeff Cassar was promoted to the head job. Might things change in Salt Lake for Martinez?
I dont know, said Martinez, thats kind of where I am right now. I dont know and thats the problem.
And thats why Martinez is headed to Uruguay for close to a month. The trip will return him to the neighborhood he grew up in, Montevideos Villa Española. Martinez moved to the United States with his immediate family when he was 10 years old, and hasnt seen a host of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents since 2000. He said hell take Monday off to visit with relatives and get his mind right before commencing training on Tuesday.
Its gonna be awesome, Martinez said with a grin. Especially after 13 years.
Martinez longs for a chance to train with any of Uruguays three biggest teams, Penarol, Danubio or Nacional, the club his family supports and for whom his uncle played. But hes not being picky. His wife, Holly, and 17-month-old daughter, Ariana, will not be making the trip down to Uruguay, at least initially. But theyll constantly be on Martinezs mind as he tries to win a deal in his native country. Holly and Ariana are the biggest reminder that Martinez isnt playing just for fun any longer.
Right now its about finding a team, getting a job and supporting my family, he said.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T