Why We Watch: Obafemi Martins, An Answer

Obafemi Martins does a lot of things well, and all of them quickly. He's great to watch, but greater still for a league that's still figuring things out.
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There’s a cinematographic trope that’s disproportionately common to the comic-book tentpole bloatfests that are presently the movie industry's chief engines of economic production. Our aeronautical hero is racing to or from some midair calamity, framed first at a distance but then the focus of a quick zoom in—too quick a zoom, in fact, so quick that the camera has trouble picking him up again, and our hero barrels forth, bouncing in and out of frame, too fast and too determined to be contained. It’s a neat visual trick, a vérité aping of news chopper footage of a car chase, the sudden spatial confusion punctuating the thrill of the extraordinary even as we know that all of it, or most of it, can be traced back to some artful lines of computer code.

Watch enough of Seattle Sounders striker Obafemi Martins, who is a real person and not at all enhanced by big-budget special effects, and you’ll notice something similar. Not only because Martins can literally induce the effect by sending cameramen spinning with his movement on the ball, but because everything else seems to fit. There’s the haywire mop-top straight out of a Saturday-morning cartoon; the wide, bounding superhero’s stride; the wild acrobatics of his signature celebratory backflip.

In his second MLS campaign, the Nigerian international’s 17 goals and 13 assists may not be quite enough to edge the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Robbie Keane in a tight MVP race. If there were an award for the league’s most dramatic and electrifying presence, though, there would be no contest. Whenever Martins, having dropped back and seemingly vanished, suddenly reappears at just the right moment and in the exact place the Seattle attack needs him, it seems only appropriate that major-key orchestral horns score his arrival. Obafemi Martins is a CGI character loose in Major League Soccer.

***

In a scheduling quirk perfectly suited to the well-worn MLS brand of plausibly deniable artifice, the race for the 2014 Supporters’ Shield—awarded to the club with the best regular-season record and, in the tradition of every other soccer league on the planet, a major trophy in its own right—came down to a home-and-home series between Martins’ Sounders and Keane’s Galaxy over the final two weekends of the season. If you were a league executive dreaming up the perfect springboard into November’s MLS Cup Playoffs, it’s unlikely you could come up with anything better than this: a decisive two-legged showdown between your two best teams—teams featuring the circuit’s two best players in Martins and Keane and captained by its two biggest American stars in Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan—with the final game aired on NBC and played in front of a crowd of 56,000.

On as crowded and well-lit a stage as Major League Soccer has to offer, Martins stood out and shone through. In the first leg, a fluid and wide-open affair at L.A.’s StubHub Center, he was the best player on the pitch, lively and omnipresent and threatening with every step forward. He assisted on both goals in Seattle’s 2-2 comeback draw, and only a pair of top-drawer saves from Jaime Penedo denied him two of his own.

The following Saturday’s finale was a rain-soaked slog, marked by the ugly, physical and generally claustrophobic play that plagues the American game, an ill fit for yet another buoyant NFL-sized Seattle crowd. It was as flat and absent a performance as Martins has turned in all year—except in the moment when it mattered most. Drawing an 85th-minute foul, Martins took a quick free kick, played a slick one-two with Dempsey, and deftly laced an improbable ball through the legs of two Galaxy defenders to set up Marco Pappa’s game-winning strike.

In a flash, out of nothing, at the last minute, he’d sealed Seattle’s second piece of silverware this year. The cameras almost missed it.

***

So much of our engagement with sports comes through an endless parade of half-answerable questions. We need grist for the sports-media mill, fodder for takes, jumping-off points from which calls can be taken and debate embraced and the loud illusion of participatory discourse maintained.

In the non-stop bug-eyed meta-narrative firehose of the NFL, the results are some of the loudest, dumbest semantic debates ever staged. You know all this. Is [player name as needed] ELITE? Is he a SHUTDOWN CORNER/TRUE NUMBER ONE/UGH WHATEVER? Does your team have a QB CONTROVERSY? After a century and a half of attrition in baseball’s war between faith and reason, all up to our eyeballs in data and probabilities, we now generally do our business with the finest-toothed combs. Should the manager have pinch-hit for his starter with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the fourth with a 2-0 lead while trailing one game to zero in a seven-game playoff series?

For fans of a league that has yet to play its 20th season, the iterations of these questions are inevitably far more existential in nature. What even is Major League Soccer? What do we want it to be? What might it become, and when?

These questions are important, or important to some people, but for most of us they’re never more than a step or two removed from being meaningless. We weren’t born into loving the Dynamo or the Whitecaps in the same way we were the Cowboys or the Red Sox—none of us who are old enough to vote, anyway. And so with other, more popular sports and other, higher-quality soccer leagues always a click away, the questions we’re really asking are some of the most existential of all: What are we doing here? Is all of this worth it? Why should we care?

No single player can answer these questions definitively, which was a lesson learned all too well in the mediated awkwardness of the David Beckham era. But some players offer better answers than others, and Obafemi Martins may offer the best answer of all.

Though signed by the Sounders under the Beckham-inspired Designated Player Rule, Martins has less in common with such past-it European superstars as Beckham and Thierry Henry than he does with a newer, more important class of MLS imports who are a bit younger and a lot less famous, and who generally do much more to elevate the league on the field than they do off it. Players like Martins, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Liam Ridgewell, Pedro Morales, Nigel Reo-Coker—all 30 or younger, all with solid European pedigrees and names that won’t necessarily sell tickets—could well be doing their thing in the English Championship or one of the lesser continental top flights. Increasingly, though, they’re right here. The question is whether MLS can figure out what to do with them.

Just as MLS academies are beginning to produce genuine homegrown stars and USMNT veterans are starting to come home (and stick around) in greater numbers, Martins and others like him are chipping away at the league’s image as a mere retirement destination. The result is a more diverse and more competitive talent pool for a league that has long leaned heavily on twin pipelines of lackluster NCAA products and hit-or-miss imports from South and Central American leagues. It’s not a revolution, or even a leap forward—just a slow, steady march towards something better. Martins is at the front.

***

Born and raised in Nigeria, signed by Serie C side Reggiana as a 16-year-old, and snatched up by Inter Milan a year later, Martins spent his first four seasons of first-team soccer winning hard-earned minutes on a deep Inter squad alongside legends like Hernán Crespo and Christian Vieri. He moved to Newcastle United in 2006, starring for three seasons at St. James’ Park before beginning a four-year journey that took him to VfL Wolfsburg, Russia’s Rubin Kazan, Birmingham City, La Liga upstarts Levante, and finally, in March of last year, to the Sounders. Last Tuesday, on his 30th birthday, he signed an extension that will keep him in rave green for at least another two seasons.

In a league in desperate need of a little less parity and a little more shape, Martins is the most valuable player on a club that has rapidly solidified its position as an MLS superpower, and a team inching ever closer to becoming a true stateside analogue of the mega-clubs that dominate European competition.

In at least one respect, Seattle is already there; an average 2014 attendance of 43,734 makes the Sounders the 28th best-attended soccer club in the world, ahead of giants like Chelsea, Celtic, Juventus, and AS Roma. They’ve qualified for the playoffs in each of their six seasons in the league, and won four U.S. Open Cup titles along the way. If they manage to win the MLS Cup in December, they’ll become the first MLS club to complete a domestic treble.

It seems quaint now that at the time of Martins’ acquisition, the knock on the Sounders was that they were a successful-enough franchise that lacked star power and attacking verve. A league-record transfer fee brought Dempsey aboard a few months later, and by that time DeAndre Yedlin was well into a paradigmatic rookie campaign as the club’s first signing under the Homegrown Player Rule.

In their brief time playing together, Dempsey and Martins have formed the most dynamic strike partnership in the history of the league. Neither fits neatly into a predefined role, and both are skilled enough that they don’t have to; they float like free radicals in the middle third, latching onto balls and launching each other forward with vision and precision that few on this side of the Atlantic can match. Yedlin—whose World Cup performance earned him a move to Tottenham Hotspur, perhaps as soon as this January—adds yet another dimension of scarcely believable speed to an attack most MLS defenses simply can’t match.

It’s effective and impressive and great fun to watch, and none of it would be possible without Martins. Every superhero needs a super-strength, and his is the ability to absorb the slop and disorder that have so slowed the league’s attempts to catch on with soccer die-hards. Martins is Seattle’s great fixer, tear-assing around in transition to trap errant passes with a burst of speed or handbrake halt or kinetics-defying skip-step, always a split-second and a sliver of space away from springing a teammate with an exacting diagonal ball or mind-melding with Dempsey or simply putting his head down and embarrassing a few defenders on his own.

More than merely dominating the league, more than helping to improve its quality, Martins is capable of validating its entire style of play. The relentless pushing forward, the high-motor harassment, the aversion to possession and build-up play—it all seems less crude and less like a problem every time Martins slips his marker in the midfield and plays another uncanny ball to put the Sounders on the break, Dempsey lurking at the top of the box, Yedlin racing down the wing, Martins arriving in support, daring the cameras to keep up with him.

Major League Soccer is light-years and earth-generations away from being on a level with the best leagues in the world, and on its worst days it can seem as if its teams are playing a different sport entirely than the one they call the Beautiful Game. The league’s image is too much the product of tryhard branding exercises and weird Potemkin stagecraft; its very financial structure, after providing vital stability in the early-going, may now be doing more harm than good. And the two most powerful men in American soccer haven’t yet figured out how to avoid bitterly and publicly disagreeing on some of the most fundamental questions about the league’s place and purpose. It’s not what it was, but it’s still mostly a mess.

And this matters where the future of the league is concerned, but seems to matter a good deal less when Obafemi Martins is on the ball, forty yards from goal, staring down a defender and looking for the right angle, the right maneuver, the right moment to throw the switch and slingshot the Seattle attack forward. In this game and this league, there are no sure things. Lanes will close, passes will stray, threats will break down. Martins will drive towards goal, and he won’t always make it; he will spin out of control, tumble on and off the screen. But he’s going to get there eventually. The hero always does.


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