Enzo Martinez got a souvenir the first time he made waves in the Open Cup.
“It was a corner-kick, I was marking him and I just saw the chance to ask for his shirt,” he said, remembering how he landed American soccer legend Landon Donovan’s jersey after an historic Cupset in 2014. “He was really cool about it and we traded after the game.
“I still have it,” smiled Martinez, a decade later and once again on the cusp of Cup history.
That was a Round of 16 game in Cary when the second-division Carolina RailHawks beat Donovan’s LA Galaxy 1-0. “They used all their big names,” said Martinez, now of Birmingham Legion, his mind drifting back through the years. The Galaxy were MLS powerhouses at the time. League champs in 2012, they’d lift the trophy again later in 2014.
Martinez was just a 23-year-old starting out – a kid riding the chaotic energy of the Open Cup and trying to carve out a little corner for himself in the American pro soccer ecosystem.
Cupset Redux in Birmingham
A decade later, with a full beard making him look a fiercer version of his younger self, Martinez is back at it. Now a hugely respected veteran leading the charge for Birmingham Legion, he was in inspired form in the 1-0 win over MLS’ Charlotte FC.
It was the first time the Legion ever knocked out an MLS opponent. And the second-tier USL Championship club from Alabama are one of just two non-MLS teams still alive in the Quarterfinals.
“It’s such an important tournament and we really felt the energy,” said the 32-year-old of that famous Open Cup night, played out in front of a club-record crowd of nearly 13,000. “The way the whole soccer community in Birmingham came together and got behind us. For us to bring a game of that caliber, and that level, to those fans was amazing. And to win it…there were so many emotions.”
Martinez arrived in South Carolina with his family from the outskirts of Montevideo, Uruguay when he was ten years old. His enthusiasm and ability quickly saw him become a local high-school star, winning state and national championships before going on to score 22 goals as a UNC Tar Heel.
His profile was such that he was drafted 17th overall into MLS in 2012. Then began an up-and-down life in the American pro scene. Most of his ten years have been spent in the second tier, with the likes of Charlotte Independence and the RailHawks – but Martinez did manage 22 appearances with the Colorado Rapids of MLS in 2018 alongside USMNT stars past and present Tim Howard and Kellyn Acosta.
Over the course of the decade, he established himself as a gritty worker who can keep the ball up in the attacking third – with vision and personality to spare.
“He’s a coach’s dream,” said Legion boss Tom Soehn of his MVP from 2022 and a three-time USL Championship All-Star. “No one will ever outwork him and that’s contagious. When the young guys come into the team, I tell them to watch him [Martinez] in training and just do what he does.
“He’s as competitive as a person can be when he crosses the line onto the field,” added Soehn, a five-time Open Cup winner as a player and a coach. “And really an amazing human being off it.”
Building Back from Rough Start
Martinez started the season with a broken bone in his foot and “a few knee injuries after that.” He had to work himself back to fitness out on the pitch as the demands on USL Championship squads are punishing – and squad sizes so small compared to the top flight of MLS.
But you won’t hear Martinez grouse about bad luck – or anything else. It’s quite the contrary. You get the distinct sense that he’s exactly where he wants to be. Doing exactly what he wants to be doing.
His affection for the blood and thunder – the occasional madness – of the Open Cup is evident up front. “Cup games are 100 percent soccer,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you have the best team – you have to show up. You need a little luck and you need to be on your best game if you want to have a shot.”
The win over Charlotte FC was huge for the Legion, a club founded in 2017 and trying to build a foundation for pro soccer in the heart of college football-country. They’ve conceded just two goals in four Open Cup games this year – and the luck of the draw means they’ll play a second home game in a row at their Protective Stadium on Wednesday June 7th.
This time it’s MLS’ Inter Miami (LIVE on CBS Sports Golazo Network) and there’s a place in the Semifinals on the line.
“Having the fans behind you is massive – it gives you energy and feeds you,” Martinez said ahead of the test against a David Beckham-owned Inter and recently linked with a move for none other than global icon Lionel Messi. “When you play an MLS team your concentration has to be totally right.”
Drawing Inter Miami at home in their first-ever Open Cup Quarterfinal is a huge opportunity for the Legion to chisel more history. Soehn’s side is currently built back to near full-strength after an injury-plagued start to the season and they’ll have ten days of rest and preparation before the game.
Compare that to Inter, who have two MLS league games in those same ten days (one of them just four days before the all-important Quarterfinal) and are on a poor run of form, propping up the MLS eastern standings in last place.
“They’re a strong team, with really good players and we have to face that,” Martinez sighed, knowing the likes of 2018 Open Cup champion Josef Martinez and DeAndre Yedlin can cause problems for anyone. “And every player in that team will be looking to prove themselves. They’ll be really motivated.
“We don’t want to be the team that helps them turn their season around,” Martinez added.
How Far is Far Enough?
He’s not the kind of player who needs reminding of what’s possible. His RailHawks Cupset from 2014 is preserved in his mind. But so is the Quarterfinal that followed it: a 5-2 mauling at the hands of FC Dallas.
Martinez knows not to think too hard about any game that comes after the next one. But even so, there’s room to dream.
“As you get closer, you begin to realize we’re among the best eight teams in this tournament now,” he said. “And little by little it reaffirms in your mind that the possibility of doing it is there.
“You have to time it right, when you let yourself think of things like that – making a semifinal or making some kind of history,” he said, the hint of a smile growing at the edges of his voice. “It’s a long road and you have to manage those thoughts – let them push you, but not overtake you and ruin it.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.