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Jan 19, 2009

Martinez back with the U.S. U-17 program

Sitting in front of the television in his parents' living room, Carlos Martinez had mixed emotions watching the match.

After all, this was his team sprinting up and down the pitch, and this was supposed to be Martinez's time.

However, after being banished from the side, Martinez could only watch the U.S. national U-17 residency squad lose to Brazil 2-1 at the Nike friendlies series on Dec. 7 in Lancaster, Calif. U.S. U-17 coach Wilmer Cabrera dismissed Martinez in early October for breaking undisclosed team rules.

Now comes Martinez's second chance. Martinez, a playmaking midfielder, has rejoined the U-17 team at its training facility in Bradenton, Fla.

"I was just so angry at myself," Martinez said. "For a little while, it was like I had no more hope. I worked so hard to get there, and then that happened. I learned the hard way that one dumb move can ruin everything. Something like that won't happen again."

Cabrera took Martinez back in mid-January only after he spent five days in early December trying out for the U-17 team with his old teammates. Of course, Martinez impressed Cabrera with his skills -- his exquisite touch, his play on the ball, his attacking mentality -- but it was his attitude that earned him a return invitation.

"Carlos and I sat down and talked several times when he was here," Cabrera said. "He really cared about what happened, and he really was more mature. Carlos missed this environment. You could tell by listening to him and his words.

"Carlos made me feel like he deserves another chance. My job here is to develop players. He learned a life lesson, and the bottom line is Carlos has to be responsible. This process was to help him."

Martinez, who said he spent much of his time away training with Chivas USA's youth outfit, is one of this country's top prospects. He plays in the midfield but attacks like a forward, a killer finisher.

Martinez's reputation blew up at the Nike friendlies in '07. He scored winning goals in wins over Brazil and Russia and added three goals in four games at the Mondial Minimes tournament in France in March. Martinez was tied for the team lead in goals (five) and assists (three) when he was sent home in the fall.

What makes Martinez such an attractive prospect is his versatility and rate of improvement. Cabrera hopes his prized pupil will represent the full U.S. national team someday. One of Martinez's consultants, Oliver Wyss, took him to Rotterdam, Netherlands, in the summer to train with Dutch power Feyenoord for a week.

Martinez hopes to move to an international club after qualifying and playing in the summer's U-17 World Cup in Nigeria.

"He's been one of our best players," said Cabrera, 41, a former defender for the Colombian national team. Cabrera added that Martinez has been a model player on and off the field during his brief stint back. "Carlos has a very competitive mentality. I like that. He's a winner. Carlos is realizing that soccer is a lifestyle and he has to be a role model on and off the field."

Added U-17 captain Perry Kitchen: "He was our leading scorer last year, and he just brings a finishing ability to the game. He obviously knows how to get forward, but he also gets back when we need him to. Carlos is a workhorse at both ends of the field, which is a great kind of player to have on your team."

Aside from his impact on the field, Carlos' father, Manuel, maintains that his son's time away from Bradenton has taught him a valuable lesson. "My dad [Tomas] owned a small market [in Mexico] in the 1950s; I saw him work so hard," Manuel Martinez said. "I just tried to pass those principles down. It's been a long process, but Carlos is learning, he's working hard. Carlos is a risk-taker, he will be more cautious. This experience has made him more motivated, I know that, and he's not even saying it. I see it."

So Carlos Martinez will rise again. This isn't the first time he has picked himself off the floor. Although it wasn't on as big a stage, Martinez's run to Bradenton was fueled by a snub he received three years ago at a West Coast Olympic development program regional team tryout in Portland, Ore. By his own admission, Martinez arrived to the trial with a cocky swagger. He left in tears after being cut.

On that day, Martinez vowed to work harder. Martinez made that ODP team the very next season and also was named captain. Humbled, he proudly wore a "C" around his arm while leading some of the best U-14 players on the West Coast. Gone was the kid who was so good he sometimes didn't think he had to take training seriously. Martinez moved on to the U-15 national team, arriving in Bradenton last year.

And he isn't leaving -- no way would he do that -- until he moves up to an older U.S. team or lands a professional contract.

"I don't want to ever feel like what I felt when I had to leave here," Martinez said. "I will follow the rules, I will make smart decisions. I just want to get better and better and help this team as much as I can."

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

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