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Cristian Martinez looking forward to a career year with Columbus Crew SC

After starting the first two matches of the regular season, the winger is hoping for big things in 2018.

MLS: Montreal Impact at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The significant roster changes Columbus Crew SC has gone through in the offseason may have brought some level of uncertainty regarding the team’s performance in the 2018 MLS season, but the team also provided some of the young players on the squad a long-awaited opportunity to play.

One of those is Cristian Martinez.

Signed by the club in May 2016, the 21-year-old Panamanian is finally enjoying some playing time this season as he logged several minutes during the preseason friendlies and started at the right wing spot in the regular season victories over Toronto FC and Montreal Impact.

“I’m very happy about the start of the season,” Martinez told Massive Report. “I’m having opportunities to play and I’m doing my best to take advantage of them. It was hard to keep training and not playing as much as I wanted for the past two years, but I feel I’ve developed well and I expect to improve even more now that I’m having a chance to play. I hope things keep happening step by step.”

Slow but steady progress was exactly what head coach Gregg Berhalter envisioned for Martinez when he arrived in Columbus. Coming from a weaker league in his native country at the age of 19, the Panamanian initially struggled to make all the adjustments he needed, but eventually settled.

Having to compete for playing time with the likes of Ethan Finlay, Justin Meram, Pedro Santos, Kekuta Manneh and Cedrick Mabwati during his first years with the team didn’t help either.

“Cristian is a guy we saw a lot of potential in and that’s why we brought him to the club,” Berhalter said about the winger’s trajectory with Crew SC so far. “It wasn’t easy for him to adapt to the league, to the team, to the physicality, to the training methods. All that took a while, but we always saw glimpses.

“Unfortunately, due to the strong guys ahead of him, he wasn’t given a proper opportunity. And now, with some players gone, it gives him the opportunity to shine and to show that he has what it takes to be a starter in our team. He has a lot of quality and he’s a young player and we need to be patient with him, but he also deserves a chance to show that he can make it.”

And he’s indeed having his chances in 2018. He started in the first two matches and already played 148 minutes. And don't forget what he did against Atlanta United last month in preseason.

In 2016 and 2017 combined, Martinez saw the field 13 times, with only three starts and a little over 400 minutes of playing time and was sent on a short-term loan to FC Cincinnati.

But game action didn’t only come because he was around. Martinez had to work hard to show Berhalter he could be a useful piece in Crew SC’s system and a lot of that was accomplished by a noticeable change in his playing style.

Once an insistent dribbler, the Panamanian is now connecting better with his teammates on the field, efficiently working as one of several gears that compose Crew SC’s unique playing system.

“For every player, when you are on the field, you want to score a goal or assist your teammates,” he commented. “But I’ve changed my style a little bit. Gregg has asked me to touch the ball once or twice and pass it and also to focus on my movement off the ball and these are two aspects of my game I’ve been working on.”

Martinez’s efforts — as well as his new flashy blond hair — have been noticed by the entire roster and Federico Higuain, one of his closest teammates, is among his biggest enthusiasts.

Pipa, who was around when Martinez arrived in 2016 and has followed every step of his development very closely, is confident the youngster is on the right path to help the team in 2018 and have a successful career.

“He’s a great kid,” Higuain said. “He’s now better settled and has earned his space in the roster. He’s been doing very well and I hope he keeps progressing on his career because he’s a really hard-working kid. It’s difficult to predict how the entire season will be for him, it’s a tough league and the matches are very physical, but I believe he’ll do even better when he’s more comfortable with the league and the rivals.”

But Martinez’s ambition is to get some respect and recognition much further than Crew SC or MLS. With Panama set to compete in its first FIFA World Cup this summer in Russia, the midfielder still believes he can be part of the roster in the historic campaign.

He was called up for the national team twice in 2016 before signing with the Black & Gold and hopes that a good start to the season with Crew SC could grant him a last-minute ticket to Russia.

“Every player dreams to be in the World Cup one day,” he told Massive Report. “I’ve been with the national team before and I believe anything can happen in the next few months with the World Cup coming. It’s certainly a motivation for me to work twice as hard every day and hopefully I can get a new opportunity.”

It doesn't hurt to dream, right?