After nearly every game he plays, Real Salt Lake forward Douglas Martinez can expect a call from his biggest fan and his harshest critic. Throughout his career, those calls have provided the motivation that has guided his rise from spindly reserve forward in his native Honduras and in the United Soccer League to a USL Championship standout and champion.
After working his way into the starting lineup for Real Salt Lake, the call came as usual following a recent scoreless draw against Minnesota United in the MLS Is Back Tournament.
In a grueling match in the Orlando humidity between two calculated clubs seeking to capitalize on the rare mistakes of the opposition, both teams extinguished any potential scoring chances before they were realized. The forwards in the match had limited opportunity to shine.
That meant little to Martinez’s mother, Xiomara Juarez.
“You need to move more to create more opportunities for the team and for yourself,” she told her son.
Martinez laughs about the interaction now, knowing full well that he wouldn’t be where he is without the critical words.
“She doesn’t speak to me like her son. She speaks to me like she’s a fan,” he smiled. “She will tell me how she really thinks I played – good or bad. She’s the first one to do it and I love that she does that because it keeps me motivated to prove to her that I can do it.”
Real Salt Lake had plenty to be excited about in its four-game turn in the MLS Is Back Tournament in Orlando. One of those highlights was the play of Martinez, as the 23-year-old drew attention for his dynamic play in starting three of RSL’s four matches and scoring his first goal for the club in the final match.
He showed to be athletic, fast and strong with a nose for goal. Just the description you’d like in a forward. And while these are characteristics that he has shown throughout his professional career, he has needed to prove himself – and discover himself – along the way to be put in the enviable position of scoring goals in a nationally-televised match with the entire league watching.
That moment was a culmination of years of hard work and dedication from a player who has drawn praise from teammates and coaches alike for a tireless work ethic. He is the quintessential model for Real Salt Lake’s development program, finding young players from within the club’s Academy and around the world who can progress, contribute and one day become a staple within the first team.
“Douglas’ signing perfectly encapsulates what we try to do at the club which is find young players with potential and provide them an environment to grow, develop and reach the next level,” RSL General Manager Elliot Fall said. “The truth is we’ve only started the process with Douglas. He came in last year and was really successful with the Monarchs but that’s not the top rung of the ladder. We expect him to continue to develop and become a top MLS player. That’s what we’re about top-to-bottom – identifying promising young prospects and facilitating their development into top level competitors.”
From the club perspective, the process behind developing Martinez has proven fortuitous much quicker than imagined. However, for Martinez the process that led to his arrival in Utah felt lengthy and extensive.
Initially, he came to the attention of Technical Director Dan Egner while playing with Honduras’ U-20 National Team. After watching him play in person and doing some research, Egner, who was then the Assistant General Manager for the Monarchs, was intrigued and followed the lanky forward at his club in Honduras – C.D.S. Vida – where he struggled to find consistent playing time. A loan to New York Red Bulls II eased the scouting process to some degree, but after starting just four times and logging only 516 minutes in the regular season and playoffs, he returned to Honduras without further opportunity.
“He had the traits that we wanted in a striker, but he was skinny,” Egner said. “He couldn’t hang with the physicality of USL. He just wasn’t built to do it.”
Admittedly, this was a difficult time for Martinez.
“It was tough to deal with mentally,” he said. “It was my first time being away from home and it was tough to not score more goals.”
Yet Egner thought there was more to be seen, so Martinez stayed on his radar.
Six months later, he was out of contract and available for the Monarchs to sign, but there were still barriers that prevented a quick transition. Interest remained, but without the international slots available to add him to the roster, Egner had to get creative. He signed Martinez, then loaned him back to Vida until the start of the 2019 season.
Once January came, a motivated Martinez arrived in Utah ready to take the next step in his development.
“THIS GUY WILL RUN THROUGH A WALL”
From when Egner first started watching Martinez until he arrived in Utah, he added significant muscle to his once-lithe frame and was much better equipped to handle the rigors of battle with the physical USL defenders.
Almost instantly he impressed his Monarchs coaches and teammates with a team-first mentality and undying competitiveness on the practice field and under the lights of matches.
RSL Head Coach Freddy Juarez, then an assistant coach, saw the talent, but was much more impressed with his persistence to succeed.
“The thing I noticed right away was his work ethic,” Juarez said. “He was willing to do what we’d like our players to do on both sides of the ball.”
Through 10 matches, he had one goal and two assists – though that goal would prove to be important for his self-confidence.
The Monarchs coaching staff remained steadfast in their approach, seeing a player on the verge of a breakout. After all, he had shown enough promise to earn call-ups to the Honduras U-20 National Team, where he scored one goal in eight appearances.
“He was doing everything but finishing goals. But no one ever wavered,” Egner said. “I think that’s important with young players, especially strikers. Once he started scoring a few and building some confidence, he just flew.”
Before he went on his scoring tear, Martinez had a moment in Austin, Texas that undoubtedly played a role in his eruption.
Still working to find his first goal with the Monarchs, Martinez knew that the trip to Austin would hold a special treat for his family – a visit from his father.
When Martinez was just three years old, his parents separated and his father immigrated to the United States to work in agriculture. A farmer by trade, the move was predicated by a need to provide for his family. By moving to the U.S., he was able to earn more money and provide more for Martinez and his mother.
Never much of a soccer fan, Douglas Martinez, Sr., was supportive of his son, but would encourage him to follow his footsteps in the agricultural field in their frequent phone calls.
Now living in the Dallas area, the elder Martinez made the trip to Austin to see his son play for the just the second time. Martinez marked the occasion by scoring his first goal of the season. Suddenly, his father turned into a full-fledged fanatic.
“He wasn’t the biggest fan,” Martinez explained of his father. “That goal generated more passion in the game.”
Now, he speaks with his dad even more frequently about the game and while he is still learning the ins and outs of soccer, the conversations are meaningful on another level.
“We have a very good relationship now. We speak man-to-man. He gives advice, but in a different way,” Martinez said. “I love that I was able to change my father’s mind and give him a passion for the game.”
After that game, everything seemed to click for the then 21-year-old.
Over the next seven matches, he had eight goals and four assists, including the club’s first-ever hat trick in a 5-0 win over Tacoma Defiance. After a trip with the Honduras U-23 National Team to ready for the Olympic Qualifying tournament, he returned to a new contract offer from Real Salt Lake to join the first team. While it was clear that he would finish the season with the Monarchs on their eventual run to the USL Championship title, he did earn a start in RSL’s 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes on September 11 at Rio Tinto Stadium. Three days later, he erupted for the first four-goal game in Monarchs history in a 5-1 win over Portland Timbers 2.
As impressive as his scoring streak was, the RSL coaches were still more enthralled with the daily work that he put in on the practice field.
“You can’t ignore goals. The hardest thing to do in the game is to score. When you see someone doing that consistently at a high level, you start getting excited,” Juarez said. “He can continue to excel with other players around him that can bring out more quality in him. He’s still young. He’s still raw. He’s still learning. The core of it all is his work ethic. He wants to get better and he’s going to put the effort in.”
A DREAM COME TRUE
On cue, he received his first call-up to the Honduras National Team for the CONCACAF Nations League and scored in his international debut on October 11, exactly one month after making his MLS debut with Real Salt Lake.
Suddenly, he found himself lining up alongside Maynor Figueroa, Boniek Garcia, Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto – all players that he had been watching for Honduras for years. Pulling on his jersey he felt awed by his circumstances.
“It was a dream come true. From when I was very young – even before I was playing soccer – I wanted to play for my country,” Martinez said. “Being on the bench and seeing all of the players that I’ve followed for so many years was something that I’d never imagined.”
Martinez now has three caps and was set to be a crucial piece to the Honduras U-23s at the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
THE NEXT STEP
After finishing fifth in the USL Championship with 17 goals in the regular season and playoffs for the Monarchs in 2019 – a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that he didn’t attempt a single penalty – Martinez was ready to make the jump to Real Salt Lake.
Already with one game under his belt, he joined RSL for preseason training camp and once again quickly impressed his teammates.
After a promising showing in a 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls in which he appeared to score his first MLS goal only to have it called back on review for a handball, things were looking promising for his role with Real Salt Lake.
Then the pandemic hit and threw his first full MLS season into disarray.
When RSL returned to the field, his work ethic was again put on display. By doing extra fitness work during quarantine, he returned strong and ready to make his mark. He showed early on that he could be a key contributor with his efforts – and results – in training sessions.
While preparing for the MLS Is Back Tournament, RSL would scrimmage its preferred starting lineup against the reserves. In three scrimmages, Martinez was with the reserves in each match, but showed enough to the coaching staff to earn the starting nod when RSL took on the Colorado Rapids in the tournament opener.
“You take the overall work that he put in during that time and you saw a very dangerous player,” Juarez said. “Every player that was going against him was having to deal with a very good player and they had to put in the effort. That made the defenders better and them playing him hard made him better.”
Martinez started in three of RSL’s four matches earning playing time while learning from the likes of Giuseppe Rossi, Kyle Beckerman, Damir Kreilach, Nedum Onuoha and Marcelo Silva, all players who have found tremendous success in a variety of leagues and in the case of Rossi and Beckerman with their national teams.
“There are a lot of guys who can help him,” Juarez said. “You have Rossi that can help him on the offensive end. Becks is a player that you can always look at his work ethic every day – he’s been there and done that and he still trains hard. Nedum and Marcelo have played in other leagues and that should be an aspiration for him. These are guys who he can watch and learn from and continue to develop because they are such good examples.”
Those same teammates are eager to sing his praises when asked.
“When you have a number nine who is fast, strong and who puts in the work defensively for the team you can’t ask for much more than that,” midfielder Albert Rusnàk said after one match. “He has proven his qualities in training throughout the past two months and rightly so. He got the start and showed that he’s got a lot of potential for the future. I hope he’ll continue to work hard, and the future will show what’s there for him.”
MORE TO COME
If Martinez continues on his current path, there will undoubtedly be plaudits coming his way throughout his career. Juarez and his coaching staff are always reluctant to heap too much public praise on young players as they progress towards their goals or make projections of what a player could become. Too often, players hear the affirmations as confirmation that they have “made it” and plateau rather than continue on their climb to success.
However, Martinez is humble enough to know that he needs to continue to work hard to accomplish more and reach his full potential.
“He’s not a finished product by any means, but he’s someone that fits into what we want to do and fits into it well,” Juarez said. “The way he got there is the way he’s going to continue to grow. If you earn it, you’re going to get it. And if you don’t earn it, you could lose it. You have to focus on the process of becoming a better footballer. Then the games are icing on the cake, but that can’t be the main course.”
Martinez is filled with motivation to follow his coach’s advice. He has a long history that shows that no matter the challenge in front of him, he will find a way to rise to the occasion through hard work instilled in him from a young age.
Whether the driving factor is scoring goals, building a better life for his family or simply satisfying his mother on their phone calls, he is determined to become the best version of himself.
“From where I come from, it’s all about work,” he said. “I will continue to do that … all the time.”