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The first time Nelson Martinez touched the ball during a training session last spring with D.C. United, he lost possession. The mistake did not go unnoticed.

“[My teammates] got mad at me,” Martinez said.

Martinez was briefly taken aback by the reaction but then moved on. He understood why they showed him no mercy. There was no grace period. If he was going to compete at this level against older and more experienced players, Martinez had to keep up. Falling behind was not an option.

It’s a good thing, then, that adjusting quickly to his surroundings and competing above his age group is nothing new for the 16-year-old Freedom High School junior who in just over a year has become a fixture in the U.S. youth national team program with a growing number of choices for his future.

There’s college. Last June, he committed to the University of North Carolina, which has qualified for the College Cup six of the last 10 seasons. There are also pro soccer possibilities with either D.C. United or with clubs overseas.

Martinez has trained with D.C. United’s first team a number of times. And since he’s a member of the Major League Soccer franchise’s youth academy, D.C. United can sign him to a home-grown contract.

Martinez declined to comment on whether he’s received interest from foreign teams, but he would consider playing in Europe. Or playing with D.C. United. Or sticking with his current plan of heading to North Carolina.

Nate Kish, who coaches Martinez on D.C. United’s 18-19 Youth Academy Team, isn’t surprised by Martinez’s sudden emergence or how he handles himself. He plays and prepares the same way for whatever awaits him.

“He’s comfortable playing up because he is so composed and calm with the ball,” Kish said. “He is able to take in a good amount of information around him quickly, including where his teammates are, how much space he has to operate in, and where the opponents are. He loves having the ball and doesn’t feel pressure when he loses the time and space that older, more advanced, bigger, strong players might take away.”

TAKING NOTICE

Freedom head boys soccer coach Benji Kimble knew a few things about Martinez when he arrived at the Woodbridge high school as a freshman.

He coached Martinez’s older brother Mauricio at Freedom. He also knew it was unlikely Martinez would ever play for him at Freedom since his commitment to the D.C. United Academy prevents him from playing high school soccer.

But what shocked Kimble was just how talented Martinez was at such a young age after Martinez started appearing with the U.S. U-16 Youth National Team. In December, 2016, Martinez made his debut program as a member of the U-16 squad. He remained with the U-16s through various training camps and tournaments before joining the U-18s in November.

“I had met him before through his brother and knew he played in the D.C. United Academy, so I knew he had to be a very good soccer player,” Kimble said. “But when I heard he was traveling to California, Argentina, and France with US Soccer, I was blown away.”

Martinez was introduced to soccer by watching his father Nelson and Mauricio play. At halftime of their games, he’d go on the field and start kicking the ball. He couldn’t get enough.

“He loves anything to do with playing the game,” Kish said.

Martinez started with Prince William Soccer before moving to a club in Arlington. D.C. United saw him there and asked if he was interested in joining the academy.

The opportunity would increase Martinez’s college and professional profile, but, given the demanding schedule, leave no time for high school soccer. In 2007, U.S. Soccer partnered with MLS franchises like D.C. United to create academies designed to develop America’s youth prospects. At the time, players could play for their academy and high school teams. But in 2012, U.S. Soccer barred academy players from competing in high school.

Martinez thinks the sacrifice is worth it. He practices four times a week at D.C. United’s auxiliary field next to RFK Stadium and has games on the weekend in a 10-month. Given his age, he must find rides to practices. Most of the time, he said he travels with Woodbridge resident and fellow academy teammate Michael Edwards.

“[The academy] has gotten me to a level I could not imagine,” Martinez said. “The competition makes you raise your game.”

PLAYING UP

In his third year at the academy, Martinez has developed into a player in need of constant challenges.

That’s why he’s playing two years up after D.C. United’s Academy coaches placed him with the 18-19 age group in August.

“He’s so comfortable with the ball that he plays above his age group,” Kish said. “The game became too easy.”

Martinez plays center midfielder for the D.C. United’s Academy team. The position requires him to protect the defense, while helping to build up the play from the back.

“He has great vision up the field and excellent range of passing,” Kish said. “He’s very intelligent in his decision-making.”

Martinez is also a quick learner.

“I guess I see someone do it and I get it right away,” Martinez said.

As for Kimble, he is used to losing players to D.C. United’s Academy. Martinez is the fourth Freedom student to play for the academy since he became head coach in 2007. Sometimes, players will leave the academy and become eligible for high school soccer, but Kimble doesn’t prepare for it. Instead, he respects whatever decision the player makes.

“As a high school coach, it can be frustrating to lose your most talented players, because winning conference championships is nice,” Kimble said. “For some of Freedom’s more talented players, soccer is a ticket to a college education, and colleges don’t recruit out of high schools anymore, but rather through club teams and academies. So if a player is talented enough to play in the D.C. United Academy, I encourage them to play there, even if that means they don’t play for me.”

And Martinez likes competing at a higher level, although sometimes it is overwhelming.

Training with D.C. United’s first team. The youth academy. The youth national teams. All those experiences plus his passion for the sport have put him in a special position.

“Soccer has really opened some amazing doors for him and presented him with some incredible opportunities,” Kimble said.

David Fawcett is the sports editor for InsideNoVa.com. Reach him at dfawcett@insidenova.com

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