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Originally published July 18, 2013 at 9:03 PM | Page modified July 19, 2013 at 9:32 PM

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In Obafemi Martins, Sounders hope they’ve found their game-changer

Martins, who has played with top clubs in England, German and Italy, could be the missing piece Seattle needs to reach its goal of winning MLS Cup.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

Rapids @ Sounders, 1 p.m., KONG

Obafemi Martins file

Position: Forward.

Height, weight: 5 feet 7, 154 pounds.

Age: 28, born Oct. 28, 1984.

Hometown: Lagos, Nigeria.

Pronunciation: o-buh-fe-mee.

Previous teams: Inter Milan (Italy, 2001-06; Newcastle (England, 2006-09); Wolfsburg (Germany, 2009-10); Rubin Kazan (Russia, 2010-12); Birmingham City (on loan, England, 2011); Levante (Spain, 2012-13).

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“Am I trending yet????”

That, in part, was how Obafemi Martins introduced himself to Sounders FC fans on Twitter four months ago.

Rumors of the forward’s arrival from Spain’s Levante UD had been persisting for weeks, sending social media abuzz, but the wait ended in March. The Sounders had their man.

A world-renowned star with proven pedigree. A potential difference-maker in the playoffs, where the high-ambitioned team’s dreams have fallen short. A designated-player signing with an impact that would be felt throughout MLS.

Halfway through the season, Martins has been just that. The highest-paid player in franchise history ($1.725 million per year) has a team-leading six goals in limited time due to injury and international duty with Nigeria.

His famous back-flip goal celebration has been used so frequently that Martins joked recently he felt compelled to switch it up.

“Not a bad thing,” he added with a smile.

But just as impressive as the production, like becoming the fastest Sounder to six goals at 636 minutes, has been the fit. A major issue with the league’s high-profile imports has often been chemistry off the field, including here in Seattle, but the team feels it got this one right.

“We always feel a massive sense of accomplishment when a guy, first and foremost, performs for the team, but then secondarily fits in well and is a positive in the locker room with his teammates and in the community,” said Adrian Hanauer, general manager and part owner. “So far, Oba has been fantastic that way.”

For Martins, the goal now is to get the sputtering Sounders’ MLS Cup hopes trending in the right direction.

Offseason hunt

The primary assignment in Sounders FC’s offseason wasn’t going to be easy.

The task? Replacing the production of Fredy Montero, the Colombian engine of Seattle’s attack for four years who still holds the franchise lead with 47 goals.

Montero wanted a change of scenery to help spur a potential move to Europe, and the Sounders needed to move on as well.

Seattle concentrated its scouting efforts for a replacement forward in Spain, and Martins entered the radar around his September move to Levante. By January, sporting director Chris Henderson was watching Martins’ games in person, and it didn’t take long to develop a praise-laden scouting report for Martins, who is perhaps as dynamic an athlete as can fit into a 5-foot-7, 154-pound frame.

“He just has world-class speed,” Henderson said. “He’s able to do things that other players can’t. He can score incredible goals — the ones where you can’t figure out how he did it — and he’s really been a consistent goal-scorer everywhere he’s gone.

“You’re just drawn to him and watching him because he adds something special to the game and makes it really exciting to watch. He’s one of those players you don’t forget after you’ve seen him play.”

Martins has been a familiar name in world soccer for more than a decade and has a résumé that includes stints at top clubs in the English Premier League (Newcastle), the German Bundesliga (Wolfsburg) and Italy’s Serie A (Inter Milan).

MLS has held its own, though, in the eye of the traveled veteran.

“A lot of people don’t really know about what is going on here in America and the league,” said Martins, including some of his friends in that mix. “They have to come and check it out here because the league is growing very, very fast. For me, I’m going to say the MLS league now is one of the best.”

That goes for Seattle for a soccer city, too.

“I was very, very surprised,” he added. “It’s just like the same in the Spanish league and England.”

A franchise matures

When the majority owner speaks, people listen.

So when Joe Roth stood in front of a couple hundred Sounders fans at the team’s annual business meeting last December, all but vowing to bring a big-money star to Seattle, it carried meaning — especially amid criticism that the team wasn’t spending enough on DPs.

“We are absolutely committed to winning the MLS Cup,” Roth said, microphone in hand, “and if we don’t win, it’s not because we haven’t spent enough money for players. We may have picked the wrong players, but believe me, if the equivalent of Robbie Keane is out there, we’ll go get him and pay for him.”

Keane, of course, is an Irish superstar who signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy midway through the 2011 season and led the team to back-to-back championships.

Maybe Roth’s proclamation was a warning to the front office to get something done, as Martins signed three months later. And in many ways the acquisition is a promise fulfilled to the fans, who continue to come out in record support.

The major acquisition has bigger implications about the organization having evolved past infancy, where fiscal responsibility led to two nominations as Sports Team of the Year by SportsBusiness Journal and SportsBusiness Daily (the Sounders won the award in 2009).

“I think what our objective as a business always has to be is to do a good-enough job running the business efficiently to generate as much capacity as possible to spend on the product,” said Hanauer, noting that could be on DPs, facilities, youth academies, reserve teams and more.

“The idea has to be that we succeed as a business because of our players and the product on the field, and the product on the field has to continue to develop if the business continues to develop.”

Translation: Sounders FC has entered an era of no excuses. The business is sound, the brand is strong and expectations are permanently locked into winning MLS Cup, which will continually require the services of world-class talent like Martins.

‘Frightening’ potential

Within 24 hours of his international flight to Seattle, Martins was in uniform for an early-season rivalry game against Portland.

Two weeks later, he played through a knee injury against Real Salt Lake. He did again in another two weeks at Colorado, where he scored the winning goal in the Sounders’ first win of the season.

The activity forced Martins to leave the team for medical treatment, but no one could question his commitment, loyalty and work ethic.

“Sometimes maybe his touch isn’t the most polished at times, but the point is you’re always going to get that effort and that determination from him,” said coach Sigi Schmid. “That was something we noticed and saw when we scouted him and something we felt could really help our club.”

What the Sounders also saw was a great forward partner for Eddie Johnson, who set a team record with 14 goals last season.

The combination admittedly isn’t in sync yet, perhaps affected by a lack of training time together due to injury and national-team duty. Martins, who teammates call funny and down-to-earth, hasn’t been infallible either, missing a crucial penalty kick in Seattle’s third-round loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the U.S. Open Cup.

Overall, the Sounders have a 1-4 record when Martins and Johnson start together, but the team is optimistic fortunes will turn.

“When those two are on the same page, that’s a scary thought for defenses all around the league,” said midfielder Servando Carrasco. “Those guys are going to be phenomenal together.”

Midfielder Brad Evans agreed: “The potential is frightening.”

And with Martins, “potential” is the word the Sounders hope to live up to this season, as well.

Oba-goal
Sounders FC forward Obafemi Martins is scoring goals at nearly the fastest rate in MLS (minimum three goals):
Player, teamMinutesGoalsPer 90 min.
Camilo, Vancouver1,229120.88
Olmes Garcia, Real Salt Lake54750.82
Obafemi Martins, Sounders FC72660.74
Marco Di Vaio, Montreal 1,484110.67
Mike Magee, LA/Chicago1,504110.66
Jack McInerney, Philadelphia 1,429100.63
Robbie Keane, Los Angeles 1,05270.60

Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or jmayers@seattletimes.com

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