But two years later, Martinez is seeing increased playing time, an abundance of chances to prove himself and even had the possibility of a trip to Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. (He was included on Panama's preliminary roster but left off the final 23-man squad.)
Here are ten things to know about Columbus Crew SC's young attacker:
1. A Spot on the Roster
In mid-May, Martinez happened to see on Twitter that the Panamanian national team had called its preliminary roster for the World Cup.
Checking it out online, Martinez noticed his name, and said he was “surprised” and thrilled to see he was included in the 35-man group.
“I was very happy because I wasn’t expecting it. So when I saw that I was included in the 35 players, I was excited; I was happy,” he said through a team translator. “My family knew and called me and they were happy. I spoke with my (agent) and he told me about it as well. Everyone was really happy for me.”
2. Panama experience
Martinez may not have expected to be on a World Cup team, but his inclusion in Panama's preliminary roster didn’t come from out of the blue.
With Panama, Martinez participated in the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in 2017, and made two appearances with the full Panamanian national team at just 19 years old.
In national team games, Martinez is typically deployed as a No. 10 rather than a winger. He said that was his natural position when he was younger, and said he’s always enjoyed playing in the middle of the field.
3. Maybe not
Despite his previous appearances and inclusion on the 35-man Russia squad, Martinez knew from the beginning his place was far from assured his place at the World Cup.
Martinez and coach Gregg Berhalter had not heard anything from the Panama federation, which mades Berhalter suspicious of his inclusion. He said he believes Panama is only “seriously considering” 25 players from the list, and said “I don’t know” when asked if he thinks Martinez will be in the final squad.
“I would suspect if he was, we would have heard something,” Berhalter said.
4. Leaving home
When Martinez first arrived in Columbus in May of 2016, he arrived as a 19-year-old brace-faced youngster who had never left his home town.
Martinez had played for Chorrillo FC in his native Panama City since he was a child, and had never lived anywhere but Panama City, let alone in another country. When he came to Columbus, he admitted it was a very difficult time.
“I had never been out of the country,” he said last month. “I was getting used to the team; I was getting used to the language. I missed my neighborhood and I missed my family. It took a lot of getting used to.”
Working through that stage of his career earned Martinez a lot of recognition from Berhalter, who played plenty of soccer abroad and can understand the challenges of uprooting your life.
“Coming from his hometown and ending up here and being alone for a year and a half and battling through not playing — he came here when he was 19 years old — and just trying to become a pro, that’s a difficult process,” he said. “It’s even more difficult when you don’t speak the language and you’re in a foreign country. So I have a lot of respect for Cristian and what he’s been able to accomplish so far in his career.”
5. An early start
Just two weeks after signing with Columbus, Martinez got his first MLS goal.
With Columbus suffering from a variety of injuries and facing a midweek trip to Philadelphia, Martinez earned what seemed like an afterthought place on the Crew SC bench. But down 3-1 late in the game, Berhalter decided to give his new acquisition a chance, and put Martinez in the game in the 70th minute.
In stoppage time, Ethan Finlay clipped in a soft cross directly to Martinez, who mustered a powerful header to score in his debut.
GOAL: Cristian Martinez scores his first goal for Columbus
“It’s a big moment for me to be the youngest person on this team and to score a goal for this club,” he said through a translator after the game.
6. Struggling in Columbus
Two years later, the goal in his debut is the last time Martinez scored a goal.
The year that followed his debut was a difficult one for Martinez, who struggled to find his footing in Columbus. He found English difficult, missed his friends and family and couldn’t find a place in the Crew SC team.
He spent much of 2016 and 2017 on various loan spells, including the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and FC Cincinnati, and made just 13 total appearances over the two seasons.
7. 2018 breakthrough
Heading into 2018, Martinez knew there was playing time up for grabs. Crew SC had recently traded winger Justin Meram, and new acquisition Mike Grella was not yet healthy. He said he came into training camp this season with a new focus and “decided” he was going to find the field.
“During preseason, I came in with the mentality that I was going to play,” he said. “Last year was kind of hard for me. I wasn’t getting a whole lot of minutes, and it was difficult. So I came in and took preseason seriously.”
The hard work paid off, and Martinez started each of the team’s first seven games of the season, grabbing his first two assists of his MLS career in the process.
8. Higuain's respect
Veteran Federico Higuain has become something of a mentor to Martinez, who said he values Higuain’s contributions to his career. Higuain said he sees a bit of his own career in Martinez, and has watched him improve. He said they get along because “we love this game.”
“He is showing his quality,” Higuain said. “I think, with games, he will get more experience. He will know the league and the rhythm of this league. He needs time, as everybody does. In my past, when I was young, I needed time also.”
9. Future of Panama
In the end, Martinez just missed making Panama's final roster for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but he's in line to be involved with the Panama national team for years to come. That’s a lot of pressure for a 21-year-old, and teammate Harrison Afful, who has been involved with the Ghanaian national team since he was young, understands what a difficult position that is for Martinez.
“It’s always about time,” Afful said. “You always need time. He needs people to talk to him, good people to talk to him, good people around him and then for sure he will be there. I see him as the future of this club.”
10. A short fuse?
Martinez lucky to not be sent off in Kansas City | Instant Replay
In an off-ball altercation with Kansas City’s Seth Sinovic, Martinez appeared to rear back and slap Sinovic in a play that even Berhalter admitted likely should have been reviewed for violent conduct.