Dreams are almost never as good as the last two years have been to Carlos Martinez.
The Las Vegas resident has toured parts of the world, had agents begin lining up to speak with him, had a day dedicated in his honor in his home city and basically had a lot of fun doing it.
And he’s only 16 years old.
But he just might be the next big thing in soccer in the United States.
Martinez, whose family moved from California to Las Vegas when he was 13, is one of 40 players in the country in his age group participating in U.S. Soccer’s Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla.
He’s a part of a program that helped developed stars such as Landon Donovan and Freddy Adu. He travels to other countries to play against the world’s best.
“It’s a big honor knowing you’re part of the top 40 players in the country,” Martinez said. “When we go visit places, all that hard work from the past pays off.”
It’s not a stretch to say Martinez might be one of the best of those 40.
Martinez’s Under-17 team scored six goals in a recent trip to France. He had three of them.
“He’s the best player in the United States at his (age group),” said Fernando Alvarez, Martinez’s personal trainer. “He’s in great condition physically, and he has a great head. He works hard.”
Martinez wasn’t exactly a hit from the beginning.
He started playing soccer at age 4 after watching his father and older brother play.
The first time he tried out for Nevada’s Olympic Development Program, in 2006, he didn’t make the cut.
“When he came back from ODP, he said, ‘Next year, I’m going to be the captain of the regional team, and I want to be in the national pool,’ ” said Manuel Martinez, Carlos’ father.
Martinez continued to hone his skills, playing club soccer and in tournaments, and he made Nevada’s ODP team in 2007.
That, though, was just the beginning.
Martinez was a part of a team that went to Oregon to compete in an ODP regional event. From the 14 teams in that regional event, only 18 players — including Martinez — were selected to represent the region in Florida.
He eventually was one of 50 players chosen in his age group in the national pool. Players from that pool are called to participate in camps and are eligible to be selected for national teams.
The biggest call of them all, though, came about a year ago, when Martinez was invited to try out to be a part of the residency program in Florida.
Only 20 players among those born in 1992 were chosen to attend the program, but it left Martinez, who was only 15 at the time, with a tough decision. He’d have to leave his family and live across the country for two years.
“It really was a tough decision, but I tried to see all the positives,” Martinez said. “Sometimes you have to make sacrifices to get where you want to be.”
Martinez plays against the best athletes in the country daily. It’s competition he wouldn’t see if he stayed in Las Vegas. He’s the only player from Nevada on his team.
“It’s in his best interest,” Manuel Martinez said. “It’s a big sacrifice, but this gives him a chance to perform better.”
The residency program began in 1999 and has helped prepare players for professional careers and to compete internationally.
“The biggest advantage of being in the residency program is that you are submersed in a professional type environment with other players of equal ability,” Donovan wrote in an e-mail to the Review-Journal. “The reality is that other countries have players in similar programs as early as 7 or 8 years old, and if we want to compete at the highest level, we have to find a way to create something comparable.”
Donovan was a part of the program’s first team and has developed something of a relationship with Martinez, with whom he exchanges e-mails frequently.
“My intention is to give Carlos and his family as much useful information as possible,” Donovan said.
Martinez isn’t afraid to pick the brain of perhaps the most recognizable U.S. soccer player.
“He give me tips, and I ask him questions,” Martinez said. “It gives me motivation to stay there and improve, because I want to be up there with him some day.”
The residency program is made up of 20 players who were born in 1992 and 20 who were born in 1993. From that group, a total of 20 will be selected to represent the United States in the Under-17 World Cup next year in Nigeria.
Martinez lives in a dorm and spends his days lifting weights, going to practice and attending classes, like any other high school-aged athlete.
That’s where the comparison ends.
“There’s no other place in the country that has this type of environment and the best players in the country put together to train,” Martinez said.
REAPING THE REWARDS
While his friends might get to spend a summer going to Disneyland or San Diego, Martinez is seeing places some people only dream of visiting.
“I’ve played in France, England, Costa Rica and Argentina,” he said.
Martinez toured Paris and Buenos Aires. He watched Manchester United play in person.
He has competed against teams from Brazil and Russia, scoring a goal in each of those matches.
“When I go to different countries, I get to see how the people are,” Martinez said. “I see the different foods, lifestyles, houses, architecture. It’s a great experience.”
Seeing the world is just one of the benefits Martinez gets from being in the program.
If he stays through the end of the residency period — December of next year — he’s guaranteed a scholarship to any college in the United States.
That’s likely a worst-case scenario.
He has a good chance of being one of the players selected to participate in the Under-17 World Cup, which will take place late next year.
“After the World Cup, I can either go play for a professional club or I can go to college,” Martinez said. “It’s a win-win situation.”
UCLA is among the schools that have sent Martinez an interest letter. Under NCAA rules, he can’t officially be recruited yet.
Of course, that’s assuming Martinez plays college soccer.
Manuel Martinez said an agent has contacted his family wanting to sign Carlos and have him turn pro now. The agency that represents Donovan is also talking to Martinez’s family.
“The agency that represents Landon says to let Carlos mature a bit more and let him play in the World Cup, but they want him to start doing endorsements for Nike,” Manuel Martinez said.
Carlos Martinez’s new dream is to play professionally in Europe.
It’s a goal that once seemed impossible for a young kid who was kicking around a soccer ball before he could read.
“I never dreamed this,” Manuel Martinez said. “He just developed. There is a difference between having a passion and just being a player.”
The younger Martinez isn’t too worried about whether to choose college or an agent yet. He’s more focused on improving his game.
“He clearly has all the tools and the ability to make it,” Donovan said. “The decisions he makes will ultimately tell what kind of career he will have.”