Looking back now it felt like the start of 2020 was a mad blur. And that was especially the case for fans of The Miami FC. After romping to great success in the startup NISA showcase at the end of 2019 the first bombshell dropped. Moving to the USL by acquiring the dead man’s boots of Ottawa Fury was a big surprise. Then the pandemic took hold and ruined everything for all of us. A lot of upheaval on and off the pitch. It’s fair to say it was a tough year for MFC. One that started out with dreams of USL playoffs turned into a rude awakening of battling Atlanta United’s bomb squad for 3rd place in a group of four. Rocked by the Rowdies, bullied by the Battery. Tough to watch.
The whole year it felt that something was missing.
Players come and go at soccer clubs and it’s hard to watch some players leave. FC Tulsa snatched away a core of fan favorites in 2020. The lethal forward Dario Suarez, no-nonsense center back Callum Chapman-Page, and probably one of the most popular players ever to pull on the orange and blue Ariel Martinez.
Let us flash back to 2016 and the birth of The Miami FC in the NASL. That was also a lesson in humility. The huge wave of optimism of a professional soccer team finally returning to Miami was crushed by a terrible opening to the NASL spring season. One win in ten and bottom of the table. That one win came in May at home against FC Edmonton. One goal to nil. The scorer? Ariel Martinez. This was no simple tap in. That is not Ariel’s style. Collecting a flick on from Jaime Chavez the magic Cuban controlled the ball expertly, dinked it past a defender and hammered it home from outside the box. Why am I even trying to do this justice with mere words? Just watch it.
That was Ariel’s first goal for the club. It wouldn’t be his last. As the performances improved thanks to a revamp of the playing staff ahead of the 2016 NASL Fall season Ariel found more opportunities to express himself in the opponent’s half. His flair on the ball initially earned him the nickname Cuban Messi. It turned out he was actually a Real Madrid fan, so that one has been put to bed! He’s a man of many names. Arielito to some. The Magic City Mago to long term fans in the know. I’ve seen some of his team mates affectionately call him Abuelo. Ariel is the sort of guy who will handle that kind of banter with a chuckle and a flash of his famously wide smile. And then proceed to nutmeg whoever called him that in the rondo.
The reasons behind Ariel’s sabbatical in Tulsa in 2020 are not now important. What is important is that he’s returned, along with Chapman-Page, for 2021. Even with a year away Martinez still has the record for most appearances in a Miami FC jersey. 92 in total. He will likely become the club’s first centurion this season and needs just four goals to go top of the all-time scorer’s list ahead of Jaime Chavez.
There’s been another big overhaul of the roster this winter and a lot of good players have signed up to right the wrongs of 2020 and that familiar feeling of optimism has returned. There will however be a special feeling that everything is right with the world when fans return to the Riccardo Silva Stadium to cheer another one of Ariel’s greatest hits. There is always a special significance to a Cuban player turning out for a Miami team. With Ariel it is on another level though because it’s more important that that. He’s made an indelible mark on Miamian soccer already and he knows what it takes to win trophies with the club. Here’s hoping that rubs off on the players around him. There’s still another chapter for the magic man to write. Welcome home Ariel. We’ve missed you.
Miami FC begin their USL Championship campaign on Sunday May 2nd, 7:30pm, against Loudoun United. At this time no fans are allowed in the stadium, watch on ESPN+.