HOUSTON -- Tomas Martinez caught Wilmer Cabrera’s eye at the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Now the Argentine playmaker is an integral part of the Colombian coach’s lineup as the Houston Dynamo aim for a repeat trip to the postseason.
There wasn’t much tactical mystery to the Dynamo’s success in their first year under Cabrera, when they reached the Western Conference Championship with a devastating counterattacking style that made full use of the speedy direct running of forwards Alberth Elis, Mauro Manotas and Romell Quioto.
Second season around, the Dynamo don’t carry the same surprise factor. That’s where Martinez comes in.
The 23-year-old rose through the ranks at River Plate, joining the youth academy of the Buenos Aires club aged six and wearing the storied number 10 shirt for Argentina’s U-20s.
Following loan spells in Spain and Argentina he was signed by the Dynamo last July as a Young Designated Player from Portuguese club Braga. He’d been watched for a while by Cabrera and Matt Jordan, the Dynamo senior vice president and general manager, who sealed the transfer with long-distance phone calls during his grandmother’s hundredth birthday party.
While many in the sellout crowd at BBVA Compass Stadium last Saturday came to pay homage to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Martinez was on LA Galaxy head coach Sigi Schmid’s mind after the Dynamo’s 3-2 win. “I think Martinez makes them more of a possession-based team,” he told reporters. “I think he helps them.”
Especially after the winter exit of Alex, last season’s team assists leader, the Dynamo are looking to Martinez for the subtleties that can unlock wary defenses and the intelligence to dictate the tempo. So far this season he has managed to contribute a goal and three assists.
“We know we have pace but everyone now is giving us a lot of space so we don’t need to rush and that is important, that he recognizes that,” Cabrera told MLSsoccer.com.
“They’re just dropping, all the teams, because they don’t want us to run behind them. OK -- so we have possession and we can play. And Romell, Alberth, Mauro, they understand that it’s not like they’re going to be sprinting every time behind the line of defense. He’s always trying to find those three guys and providing balls for them so they can go and attack.”
Martinez (L) celebrating with Alberth Elis | Troy Taormina-USA Today Images
Suspended for the opening-day win over Atlanta United after picking up a red card in last year’s playoff loss to the Seattle Sounders, Martinez has started every game since, contributing one goal and three assists. He’s been quietly effective for the most part; now Cabrera wants him to grab the headlines more often and establish himself in the top rank of MLS attacking midfielders.
Compared to his first MLS season, Martinez said, “I feel more comfortable. I think that the team is playing way better than last year because we have better possession. I don’t think we have been outplayed this season. We’ve lost points due to some mistakes, and we are working to fix those.”
Also being fine-tuned is the team’s understanding of when to move the ball quickly up the field and when to be patient.
“It’s something that we are working on. There are times when we will have to make quick transitions because we have fast players, but it is also important to control the ball so that you don’t wear yourself out in the game,” Martinez said through a translator.
Manotas is Martinez’s roommate on road trips, when the pair pass the time talking about South American soccer. The Colombian striker believes his teammate and friend is improving fast.
“I think there is a big difference. Last year he was learning about this league, he didn’t know much about it, he had just studied it for a couple of months,” he said through a translator. “This year, he is wearing number 10, he has more responsibility and more confidence, and you can see that he is more comfortable on the field.”