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Apr 13, 2008

Hofstra's Martinez shines for Puerto Rico

OK, so maybe Richard Martinez deserves a pass. After all, he's a college kid at Hofstra University, his mind cluttered with thoughts about practices, parties, studies and that cute girl in history class. But the question still has to be asked: excuse me, Rich, how did you think you were trying out with the Puerto Rican under-23 men's national team when the invitation actually came from the full squad?

"That's what they told me," maintains Martinez, a defender, returning for his second year with the Westchester Flames of the Premier Development League.

Back in January, Martinez arrived in Salinas, located on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, ready for a shot with the U-23s. He was shocked when Puerto Rican head coach Colin Clarke informed him that he would actually be training with the big boys.

Clarke says he doesn't know anything about the Martinez mix-up. However, Dariel Collazo does. Collazo, a Stony Brook University assistant coach who played for the Puerto Rican national team from 1991-2001, spotted Martinez this fall playing for Division I Hofstra.

Collazo, who recommends players for his native country, helped arrange a tryout for Martinez with the U-23 team last November. Martinez, 19, couldn't make the trip because it was on short notice. But he made the most of his next opportunity.

Given a week-long tryout to mix it up with players in their late 20s with pro experience, Martinez made the Puerto Rican national team. During camp, he did the same things that made him a Colonial Athletic League all-rookie selection in 2006 and a second-team CAA selection last year: Martinez never backed down and kept attacking, using his speed and athleticism to track down and win 50-50 and loose balls.

"[Martinez] has great character, great enthusiasm," Clarke says. "He's very aggressive; he's got all the tools. As a young player, Richard came into camp in a tough situation, but became more and more confident as time went on. We like the way he plays."

Clarke tabbed Martinez a starter for Puerto Rico's friendly against Bermuda on Jan. 16, but there was more confusion. Martinez, who hails from Highland, N.Y., had his passport renewed, but it didn't arrive before he left for Puerto Rico. It's a good thing the team traveled from the San Juan International Airport to JFK in New York to catch a Bermuda International flight.

During a four-hour layover at JFK, Martinez picked up his passport from his dad, Edward, who had arrived the day before. Then, finally, it was off to beautiful Bermuda -- and Martinez shined.

He started in a 2-0 win over Bermuda on Jan. 16 -- Puerto Rico's first international victory in nearly 14 years -- and in a 1-0 victory two days later. Martinez never backed down, taking on players one-on-one with aggressive tackles and using his speed to serve balls out of Puerto Rico's end. "I played a little shaky the first game," Martinez says. "I was a little shaky. But I just tried to go out there like everyone else, going in as fast as I could. I didn't want to be the weak link."

Not only did Martinez impress Clarke with his moxie, he also made an impression on Puerto Rico center back Marco Velez, who plays in the USL's first division with the Puerto Rican Islanders. Velez has mentored Martinez since the first day of camp. So naturally he spent much of the Bermuda games shouting instructions to Martinez on the flank. The kid didn't need many.

"Put it this way: [Martinez] didn't look scared," Velez says. "He plays really composed. I was actually impressed with him right from the start. He knew what he had to do and he just worked hard out there. Richard just plays hard."

Martinez started again in a 2-2 tie with Trinidad and Tobago on Jan. 27. That match was a big step for the rebuilding Puerto Rico side. Trinidad and Tobago qualified for its first-ever World Cup in 2006, tying Sweden and losing to England and Paraguay in the first round.

Puerto Rico has never played in the World Cup. But Martinez and the team began qualifying for the 2010 World Cup on March 26 with a 1-0 win against the Dominican Republic.

Martinez is proud to represent Puerto Rico. Both his parents are Puerto Rican and his grandfather, John D'Acosta, was born there. Martinez wears his Puerto Rico warm-up jersey proudly around Hofstra's Long Island campus.

And if anyone asks about his threads, Martinez has the story straight now. There is no confusion with the U-23 national team. Richard Martinez plays for the full Puerto Rican national men's soccer team.

Justin Rodriguez covers the USL for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at jrod_showtime@yahoo.com.

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