When the Fire kickoff their 2019 Carolina Challenge Cup run on Saturday afternoon, the Club’s opening matchup offers a unique challenge for one of its newest faces.
After nearly four weeks donning the Fire crest, midfielder Cristian Martinez will take on his former squad, Columbus Crew SC, on Saturday afternoon in Charleston (4 p.m. CT).
“It’ll be a really fun experience,” Martinez said via a translator. “If the coach gives me the opportunity to play with the team, then I will give it my best and try to do the best that I can for the team.”
Martinez spent three seasons in Columbus after coming to the U.S. from Panamanian side Chorrillo as a 19-year-old in 2016. In 2018, he appeared 14 times (11 starts) for then-Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter, picking up a pair of assists along the way.
“It was a lot of hard work and sacrifice,” he said of his time in Columbus. “I arrived alone and had to adapt to a lot of things. Soccer is very different here and day by day I had to adapt to grow as a person and a player.”
Following Berhalter’s departure for the U.S. Men’s National Team, Crew SC enter 2019 under new head coach Caleb Porter. Ahead of Saturday’s kickoff, Martinez is looking forward to a first-time experience switching sides in a long-contested rivalry.
“I have never been in this situation,” he said. “I’m anxious to do well against my previous team.”
The young attacker was claimed by the Fire with the fourth overall pick in the 2018 MLS Waiver Draft, and officially signed on Jan. 24.
An active addition to Veljko Paunovic’s attacking unit through nearly four weeks of preseason camp, Martinez has generally been deployed centrally on the “3” line of Paunovic’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. So far, Martinez is adjusting well to his new surroundings.
“The team has received me in the best way possible,” he said. “Little by little, I have adapted to the trainings and my teammates. For now, I have felt very good and very comfortable with the coaching staff and the players.”
Martinez enjoyed a promising start to his Fire tenure during the Club’s two week camp in Madrid, creating a pair of narrowly missed scoring opportunities on combinations with Nemanja Nikolić and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the Fire’s 1-1 preseason debut draw against Atlético Madrid B on Jan. 30.
He then helped ring in his 22nd birthday by contributing to the Fire’s 1-0 friendly win against CF Fuenlabrada on Feb. 6, nearly doubling the Fire lead on a curling direct free kick that forced an acrobatic save from the opposing goalkeeper.
“It was two hard weeks of work, but they were good,” he said.
While the Club will look to show well in its three CCC matches in Charleston, the real work still remains ahead for Martinez and his new teammates as the Club’s opening day date against the LA Galaxy draws closer (Sat., March 2, 7 p.m. CT | FS1).
“I’m excited to work harder to achieve the opportunities that I’m looking for,” he said. “I’m going to try to get a lot of minutes, help the team, score a lot of goals and provide a lot of assists.”