Photo by ISIphotos.com
By ADAM SERRANO
These days, Kelyn Rowe and Enzo Martinez have a great deal in common.
Both are playmakers for their teams with field vision that has pro scouts raving, and both are candidates for Generation adidas deals following this NCAA season.
On Friday, their teams face off for a berth in the College Cup final when Martinez's No. 1 North Carolina faces Rowe and No. 13 UCLA (8 p.m., ESPNU/ESPN3.com). Not only will a place in the national championship game be at stake, but with pro scouts descending on Hoover, Ala., their match-up will also play a big part in determining their prospects for the future.
Although both players have plenty in common in terms of leading their teams to college soccer's grand stage, their paths to success in the sport have been vastly different.
Rowe has been dealing with high expectations for his whole playing career. Arriving at UCLA in 2010, Rowe quickly set the college game ablaze with seven goals and 10 assists in his freshman season for the Bruins. The spring and the summer were kind to Rowe, who was one of the lone bright spots on the U.S. Under-20 national team's fruitless CONCACAF qualifying tournament showing that saw the heavily favored Americans miss out on the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Having shined against professionals and even trained in Europe, the stage was set for Rowe to once again dominate the college game with his clever passing ability and eye for goal. From the outset though, things did not go according to plan in 2011 for the 20-year-old from Federal Way, Wash. Initially playing a forward role early in the season, Rowe and the rest of the Bruins struggled, failing to register a victory in their first three matches.
"I came in expecting a lot, and people were expecting a lot from me and I didn't perform," said Rowe. "That was my fault. As the season went on, I grew and as a person and a player I matured. I learned that I've got to play well in every game and I can't take any time off."
Rowe — and UCLA – eventually rebounded, with the player accounting for five goals, 10 assists and Pac-12 Player of the Year honors; however, when one has talents like Rowe, sometimes even the highest accolades aren't enough. At the start of the NCAA tournament, UCLA head coach Jorge Salcedo informed Rowe that he would be coming off the bench for their first round match against Delaware.
"It's something new for me, honestly, to see yourself not warming up with the starting XI is really hard and it beats down on you," said Rowe. "It made me grow as a player, though, and I knew that my teammates needed me, so I thought when I go in, I'm going to make a difference, and I did. No matter when I come in, no matter if I start, I'm going to play and I'm going to make a difference and that will be seen."
That difference was clear in the Round of 16 against Rutgers, when Rowe came off the bench and immediately created a scoring opportunity for himself. Although Rowe continues to come off the bench, the midfielder has played considerable minutes, playing at least 60 minutes in the Bruins' three tournament games.
Both player and coach are unsure if the midfielder will be back in the startng lineup on Friday, but Salcedo admits that he has seen a profound change in Rowe since his spell on the bench began.
"I've seen him more willing to accept what his role is initially and his approach has been good," said Salcedo. "It's also when a team is doing well and when we're doing well as a group is successful then you better jump on board, and that's been his approach. Initially he was disappointed, but first and foremost, it's the team that is the priority and that's always been our motto.”
Photo by ISIphotos.com
COMING TO AMERICA
Like many immigrants to this country, it was a series of circumstances that brought Enzo Martinez to America.
After his father lost his job at a factory, he was convinced by a family friend to head north to Rock Hill, S.C., and after working as many as three jobs, he earned enough to send for 10-year-old Enzo and the rest of his family.
The first few years in Rock Hill were trying for the Martinez family, who struggled with a dramatic culture shift from their home in Montevideo, Uruguay.
"The transition is usually very difficult. Sometimes you really can't explain and you have to just go through it," said Martinez. "I was lucky that I came here when I was 10 years old, so it was easier for me to get used to the transition. It was still hard, but my older sister and my parents had the most difficult time. It was a new country that spoke a completely different language. The style and the food are different.
"When I came to this country, I didn't play soccer for a year or two, because I didn't speak English and I didn't know what to do. I just went to school and came back home, only playing with my brother and my friends."
As with many that come to the United States, Martinez gradually acclimated to his new surroundings. He developed a fondness for American culture and eventually learned how to speak English in the measured and thoughtful pace that he was taught at Richmond Elementary School.
The lure of the game also proved to be great, as Martinez became one of the finest young players in the country. While winning two state titles with Northwestern High, Martinez developed the silky touch and superior field vision that would ultimately take him to Chapel Hill. But it was at the formative age of 16 that Martinez caught the eye of his future coach.
"I saw him play with his club team and I was actually coaching a club team in the same age group," said North Carolina head coach Carlos Somoano, who coached against Martinez at the U-17 level. "We ended up playing them four or five times, and I knew him as an opponent and he was just the same as he is now, he's relentless. You couldn't take your eye off of him."
After two solid seasons with former head coach and current Creighton boss Elmar Bolowich, Martinez has flourished in Somoano's possession-oriented system. He tallied nine goals and 10 assists and garnered a selection as a Hermann Trophy semifinalist. With pro scouts already tracking his every move, Somoano believes that the wispy kid from Rock Hill has come a long way.
"He's really matured as a player and developed a better vision for the game. It's only natural for a player that trains as hard as he does," said Somoano. "He has no choice but to continue to improve, just on his attitude. It's been undoubtly a joy to watch him grow as a player. His personality and his play is infectious to the team and staff."
SHOWDOWN IN ALABAMA
On Friday at Regions Park, a groomed-for-success talent from the Pacific Northwest and the Montevideo native will finally meet on the field. Rowe is likely to continue playing the role of super sub for the Bruins, while Martinez sits on the outside of the Tarheels' high-octane midfield trio.
Even though they both occupy spots among the upper echelon of collegiate talent, there's no real familiarity between each other.
"I heard he is a good player, but to be honest, I have no idea," Martinez said. "I can cross on the street and he wouldn't know who I was and I wouldn't know he was."
Scouts, coaches and fans know exactly who to watch for, and among the throngs, who will observe their battle, both players will have their own unique support groups in the stands at Regions Park.
Rowe's family will make the nearly 2,000-mile trek from Washington to Alabama, as the player hopes to add a national championship to his already impressive resume. Meanwhile, Ms. Chavez, Martinez' diligent ESL teacher that helped lay the foundation for his emergence in America, is expected to be decked out in Tar Heel blue, supporting Martinez as he plays in his third consecutive College Cup semifinal.
The match will pit the two talents with differing pasts square up against each other while scouts and eager fans observe their every pass and every run towards goal. All of that is secondary to both of them, though. Their focus is simple: Win the national championship.
"The best thing to do is get ready and focus on the right thing. Those days will come and they'll be good days when they do," Martinez said of the individual attention. "If you're too focused on that part of the final four, then you were focused on the wrong things and it'll show on the field. The best way to to do it is not to prepare for that."