A number of players across the league have used the MLS is Back Tournament as the perfect stage to showcase their talent to a national audience. As usual, it's been the goalscorers grabbing the most individual headlines: Ayo Akinola, Chris Mueller, Diego Rossi — you get the idea.
But, quietly, one player helping pace the Philadelphia Union's strong run to the semifinals is catching the eye of many across the league.
New signing Jose Andres Martinez, who had one MLS start before the tournament after being signed this winter, has anchored the Union midfield. His caffeinated non-stop energy has helped shield the backline, while his penchant for a tackle (and ambivalence to picking up a yellow card) has helped force turnovers to jumpstart Union attacks.
Martinez's performances have even reminded some of one of the league's best-ever defensive midfielders: Diego Chara.
“To be mentioned next to Diego Chara is a real honor for Jose, it speaks to the growth he’s made in a short amount of time," Union head coach Jim Curtin told reporters on a video conference call Monday. "He has to do it for a couple seasons before we make those comparisons, but the talent is certainly there. He has a great engine, all the players love him, it’s been fun working with him and he’s had a great [tournament.]”
Curtin was quick to point out that Chara is one of the most underrated players in MLS. The two destroyers will go head-to-head on Wednesday, as the Union face the Portland Timbers in the semifinals (8 pm ET | FS1, TUDN; TSN, TVAS).
“[Martinez is] not in the same league [as Chara] yet," Curtin added. "For a player to watch on tape, a great guy for Jose is Diego Chara. There are similarities, in terms of their aggressiveness in right on that fine line of picking up a yellow card. They are both really good passers and probably don’t get enough credit for that."
Martinez, nicknamed El Brujo ("The Wizard" in Spanish), started the first two group stage games before missing the last due to suspension. He quickly returned to the starting XI for the club's first two Knockout Stage games. Philly have conceded just two goals in the 325 minutes he's been on the field, keeping two clean sheets in four matches.
“You see it in every training session, he wants to win every ball," fullback Kai Wagner said of Martinez. "He’s gotten better with the ball, he’s a big key in how we want to play.”
The 25-year-old had spent the entirety of his early career in his native Venezuela, most recently with Zulia FC. Martinez helped lead Zulia to the quarterfinals of the 2019 Copa Sudamericana, the furthest a Venezuelan team has progressed in the history of the competition.
"He leaves everything out there, that’s important in that position," center back Jack Elliott said. He’s very helpful or us, it makes a defender’s job a lot easier.”