Phased out of Nigeria, Obafemi Martins has attention squarely on Sounders success
TUKWILA, Wash. — After a tumultuous and jet-lagged first season with the Seattle Sounders, Obafemi Martins seems to have settled in the Emerald City. It probably helps that he hasn’t played for Nigeria in nearly a year.
That cap, in a 1-1 draw against Kenya in World Cup qualifying in March 2013, was his 39th for the Super Eagles. It came at the end of a month that saw Martins travel from Levante, Spain, to Seattle to make his debut, then immediately make the trip to Calabar, Nigeria, for the game before returning to Seattle.
“I think the preseason helps me a lot because without the preseason last year, coming from Spain, playing a lot of games and coming here, starting a new season with MLS, I think it’s a little bit tiring,” Martins told reporters on Thursday after Sounders training. “I was playing a lot of games. … We have a long season.”
Martins played 20 minutes in the second half against the Portland Timbers in his first MLS game — the same team his Sounders face on Saturday at Providence Park in the first Cascadia Cup game of the 2014 season (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN). General manager Adrian Hanauer encouraged Martins to report after Nigeria’s match against Kenya, but Martins wanted to play.
Since then, Nigeria has played 22 matches, including qualifiers, the FIFA Confederations Cup, African Cup of Nations and two matches against Mexico in the United States. Martins hasn’t even been called into camp.
He said he’s not the only one being phased out of Stephen Keshi’s squad. Martins clinched Nigeria's qualification for the 2010 World Cup with a goal in qualifying, but he played just 71 minutes as a substitute in South Africa.
“I don’t know anything for now. Some other players don’t know anything, too, because a couple of my teammates, we’re older in the team, and they don’t know as well,” he said. “I want to go to the World Cup — who doesn’t want it? — but the important thing right now is my team. I just want to play here, enjoy myself, try to help the team.”
By all accounts, Martins has enjoyed his time with the Sounders, particularly since the new season started. He has been involved in goals, either scoring or assisting, in the last three matches, and his demeanor is looser on the training ground.
He stayed late after training on Thursday to kick around with a few teammates, and the small group smiled and laughed several times. In 2013, he scored eight goals for the second-highest total on the team, adding four assists, but he frequently looked exhausted and perhaps overwhelmed by his new surroundings.
“I’m a little bit [more] comfortable now, this year,” he said. “Even last year, I was enjoying the game. I’m still doing the same: trying to score goals and trying to help my teammates out, trying to win games. So I’m enjoying it.”
Martins said he likes working with U.S. captain Clint Dempsey. Although they’ve had limited time together due to international duty and each player’s injuries, he said he feels better chemistry with Dempsey in 2014.
“We can play very well together,” Martins said. “I think we can connect properly. What we’re doing now, I think, we’re playing pretty much better together, and I hope we’re going to play [even] better together.”
Despite making his MLS debut against the Timbers in a 1-1 draw last March, Martins said the game holds no special meaning for him. For the same reason he’s not thinking about his situation with the Nigerian national team ahead of the World Cup, he is focused on playing well no matter the shirt he or the opponent wears.
“I just want to enjoy my game. I just want to score goals,” Martins said. “I don’t care about Portland. I just want to play and enjoy it and try to win games.”