Glancing out the floor-to-ceiling windows of a large conference room overlooking Sporting Kansas City’s vast training field at the Pinnacle National Development Center, Portuguese defender Luis Martins was quick to answer what he loves most about Kansas City.
“I go with my girlfriend sometimes to the restaurants,” he said. “Barbecue I like too much.”
But what he said next was the real kicker — the true sign that Sporting KC’s latest international signing had truly adapted to the Kansas City culture.
“Here in Kansas City, (the barbecue) is the best.”
Arriving in Kansas City on a free transfer in early August from Portuguese team Chaves, Martins has had to quickly adjust to life in America’s heartland.
The 27-year-old left back has starred under the brightest lights; he’s featured in the UEFA Champions League for Portuguese giant Benfica and performed under the glare of 100,000 fans at Barcelona’s Camp Nou during a stint in Spain with Grenada.
And although his latest challenge isn’t quite as illustrious as Europe’s biggest stage, it’s one he’s taken with excitement and vigor in a city he finds “small but very pretty.”
“It’s a great opportunity for me because I played on great teams in Portugal and Spain. Now I see this opportunity, a very good opportunity to know another league and an exciting league in this fantastic country,” Martins said. “It’s a new life for me, but I try to find my dreams and I like the movement.”
But it’s not just off the field that Martins has quickly adapted.
A mere two weeks into his life with Sporting Kansas City, Martins found himself coming on as a second-half substitute in a 1-0 loss at Orlando. Just three days later, on Aug. 17, he was in the starting lineup for a 2-1 win over San Jose.
“I think Luis has come in quicker than I expected,” said Sporting KC teammate Graham Zusi, who plays on the opposite flank. “He really bought into the way we played and he’s looked very dangerous going forward, too: He can play in a really good ball. He fits our system is very well — I think he’s done well right off the bat.”
Martins’ attacking style, which also features an ability to get back and defend immediately, bolstered Sporting KC’s backline immediately. Not only has he cemented himself as a starter, but his contributions immediately helped the club pick up its first three-game win streak of the season, as well as back-to-back clean sheets.
It’s a trait that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rest of the team.
Gerso Fernandes, who often plays down the same left side as Martins, played in Portugal when Martins did. While they did not have a personal relationship, Gerso knew the skill-set that Martins would bring to Kansas City.
“He has a lot of qualities and he likes to go up the field; that helps me a lot as a winger and gives me more options,” Gerso said. “He likes to go forward and try shots, which I like a lot.”
In one particular game when he first arrived in Kansas City, coach Peter Vermes was planning on only playing Martins for about 60 minutes before substituting him out due to fitness concerns.
“I said, ‘Hey, how are you feeling?’” Vermes recounted. “And he said, ‘I can last. Use that sub for more of a tactical reason than just for a physical reason.’
“And so that in itself told me a lot about the player,” Vermes continued. “He understood what the game needed at the time and he was able to perform it and concentrate on that, and that was a big thing.”
Vermes has insisted on Martins’ need to gain fitness since his arrival. When he was traded to Sporting KC, he hadn’t played a game in three months: The Portuguese Primeira Liga ended in May.
It’s something Martins recognizes, too, and he’s looking forward to improving his fitness for next season.
“My level is good, but I think next year is better than this. I show some things, I show great things, but I think next year is better for me,” Martins said. “But I think now I’m at a good level, but I think with a preseason because it’s very important for the quality and to be healthy, I’ll do better.”