It’s a Monday evening and a bustling band of expats can be seen huffing and puffing their way round two football pitches at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi.
The players are a mix of ability, though it’s a decent standard across the board, and age. Youthful exuberance and veterans with their best years behind them, but who won’t ever relinquish the grip they hold on their first love.
In the build-up to Christmas, a new player turned up who resembled a young Thomas Muller. He played a bit like him too. Lightning pace, precision passing and control so mesmerising it appeared he actually had a piece of elastic connecting his boot to the ball.
The team he played on won two of their seven-a-side games despite being a man down for an hour.
Many Abu Dhabi Strollers regulars were impressed by what they saw of Collin Martin. They should be, the 23-year-old plays in the MLS for Minnesota United.
Martin, a former United States Under-20 international, was holidaying in the UAE with his father Gerard, a Washington-based cardiologist who comes to the Emirates to work with Zayed Sports City-based Healthpoint hospital.
A colleague at Healthpoint plays at Strollers and told Martin to bring his boots on holiday, after Martin and Minnesota’s debut season in the MLS ended in a ninth place finish in the Western Conference at the end of October.
Martin played 11 regular season games for United, who along with Atlanta United, were the league’s two new expansion teams this season.
He was traded to the debutants in January from parent club DC United, one of the pioneers of football in the US, winning the second most MLS Cups (four) since the league formed in 1993.
Injuries marred his prospects at a club whose youth ranks he’d emerged from and been at for eight years. Joining a new club, Martin played the most top-flight games of his fledgling career, and the two seem a good fit.
“I started a bunch of games towards the end, six in a row,” Martin tells Sport360 sat in the luxurious confines of the St Regis Hotel on Abu Dhabi’s Corniche – a world away from the often brutal tundra of Minnesota, where United have to play many of their games indoors due to the severity of the weather.
“I struggled in the beginning but I was patient and trained well, listened to Adrian Heath (United’s coach) and he gave me a chance and they were happy with how I progressed.
“We had some good form toward the end so hopefully I can keep building next season and have a real breakout year. It was a start.”
A homegrown DC player, Martin had been with his boyhood club since the age of 12, but only made a handful of first-team appearances during a four-year senior career.
He attended North Carolina’s Wake Forest University where he played a season for the Demon Deacons in the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association, US’ top tier college programme) in 2012. He was also loaned to the Richmond Kickers in the United Soccer League, America’s second tier.
It clearly wasn’t happening for Martin at DC so he took the chance to break out of his comfort zone last season and accept a new challenge in Minnesota.
It’s an issue facing many talented kids in Europe, who grow up at big teams praying they’ll break through but falling in love with the idea so much that they fail to take chances to establish themselves elsewhere.
The challenge was something Martin was determined not to pass up.
“In a perfect world it could have turned out differently,” Martin said of Minnesota, who took up an option during the off-season to keep him for next season.
“It was good to get out of DC and be on my own, where I was still living with my family, where I grew up. I immersed myself in my job. And it helped having a team that really wanted to help me grow.
“I played a good amount of games (in DC) but it was time for a change, a new challenge. Some players don’t get an opportunity but I did and it wasn’t something I was going to let go.
“I know I’m there for next year and if I have a very good season perhaps I can stay for longer. They picked up my option so have one year definitely. Last year I was treading water and didn’t know what was going on. Now I know it’s my home.
“I want to be a starter and start establishing myself around the league. That’s what I think I’m capable of. If I’m in the 18 and around the roster I think I’ll be able to get minutes.”
With Martin trying to make a name for himself as a player while the club does the same, it feels like the perfect team for him to be with.
“It’s a club that’s going places,” says Martin, who is managed by Heath, a former England U21 international who counts Everton, Manchester City and Espanyol as his former clubs in a career of more than 700 games.
“We were in the NASL (North American Soccer League, America’s third tier) and two seasons ago they signed on to be an MLS team.
“We’re building a new stadium, the Allianz Arena, it’s beautiful, 18-20,000 capacity which will be ready next season.
“The support has been impressive, I had no idea they had a football fanbase. The first year was crazy and long, my first year and their first year too as a team.
“We were averaging 20-22,000 fans per game, more than other established clubs in the league. And I think that will only grow. Hopefully we’ll sell out the new stadium.
“We have a great coach, a great owner who cares about growing the game in Minnesota. I see good things happening. We have good youth and practice facilities, indoor turf as it’s so cold we have to play indoors. New locker rooms, there’s a lot of money and effort going into it.”
Martin counts former Porto and Spartak Moscow midfielder Ibson among his teammates, as well as former Man City protege Tyrone Mears, who’s been in the MLS since 2015.
Like the UAE’s Arabian Gulf League, the MLS has attracted its fair share of stars over the years – David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo to name but a few.
And Martin admits he’s learnt a lot from his Brazilian colleague. “Ibson is a big player for us,” added Martin.
“He played in the Champions League, played in Portugal. A big time player who played over 100 games in Brazil. He was awesome to learn from. The biggest thing I got from him was his love for the game. It’s a passion and is something that should be fun.
“There’s also a lot of good players I look at who play my position, midfield.”
One perfect role model is Italy icon Pirlo, who just completed his third season at New York City FC and his final campaign ever in football – a 22-year career that took in Italian giants AC Milan and Juventus and saw him win the 2006 World Cup as well as two Champions League crowns and six Serie A titles.
Martin and Pirlo were both on the bench when New York and Minnesota met at Yankee Stadium on June 30, Pirlo coming on for the remaining 12 minutes. It is an experience Martin calls “very special”.
“I didn’t play but I was warming up next to him, at a bit of a faster pace,” recalls the youngster of his encounter with the master.
“But he doesn’t have to be fast, with the way he measures his touch. He doesn’t have to be flying. Modern football today is all very fast but slowing it down can be to your advantage.
“And that’s what he does, slows it down for himself. He’s playing at a different pace and then can change the pace of the game.
“He went on and I got to see him, which was pretty cool. He’s retired now and you look at people messaging him from around the world at all levels.
“Every single player in the world has admired how he’s played and the grace in his game, it was a pleasure to have him in MLS and see him up close.
“His passing ability and grace, the way he moves the ball. It’s just different. He moves it differently than really anything I’ve ever seen. The way he takes his first touch and creates space. It’s something very special and a joy to watch.”
The MLS, much like the AGL, might receive a scoff when mentioned in football heartlands like Europe. But there’s no doubt its impact is travelling farther.
Take Minnesota, who’s new ground will be in the city of Saint Paul, the State’s second-most populous city, which is currently home to only one team within America’s four traditional sports – the NHL’s Minnesota Wild.
Martin is convinced of football’s growth in the States, he’s lived it. “Soccer is the number one sport for youth in America and it’s been like that for a while,” he boasts, proudly.
“As a kid you grow up to play all the sports. I played soccer as a kid, that was my sport. I played basketball too. I thought I was pretty good. I got offered to play for a local team but it was one or the other. I was much better at soccer so I had to continue.
“It used to be that all the best athletes in America would play all three sports, so basketball, (American) football and baseball. Nowadays you have to pick, which inhibits growth. It’s not like that in Europe, you pick one.”
And Martin credits his older brother Trevor with fueling his love for the game and nurturing his talent.
He added: “My older siblings played, two sisters and brother. He (Trevor) was the reason. He wanted me to play and taught me a lot and encouraged me.
“I was always at their games kicking the ball. I met some good coaches through my brother. DC is a big area for soccer. DC historically are one of the most prominent MLS teams although they haven’t done so well recently.
“LA Galaxy (five MLS Cups) too, but with new markets, New York, Seattle, Portland and Toronto now are the bigger teams.
“It’s getting bigger and you see that with the average attendances. It’s jumped. It’s seriously supported. You have the big names players who have spurred that interest.
“(US Soccer) know the importance of growing their own and improving on that. We still have a lot to do as we didn’t make the World Cup. We understand the importance of that but also bringing younger players in their prime as well.
“American, Chilean, Argentinian, whatever. If they’re good we want them in our league. You saw Atlanta this year, another expansion team, they did very well (reached the play-offs after finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference).
“They didn’t get big established names but got some really good young players to build their team around.”
Pre-season started last month for Martin and Minnesota, with his and their second proper season kicking off in March.
He wants to improve on his 11 outings this year so will take it step by step, game by game. But having won five caps for the US at U20 level four years ago, he admits the senior squad is the ultimate ambition.
“I represented them as a kid at youth level, which was a big honour,” he said of a team that have just failed to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
“I know I’m so far from that but if I can just get better each day and with each game, who knows. Maybe one day. You have to dream big.
“When I was younger I thought maybe that would have been a closer reality but I just need to get better and focus on improving. Hopefully I can get a full season of games and if I can, who knows.”
Phil Neville has been appointed head coach of England Women until the end of the 2021 UEFA Women’s Championship campaign, the Football Association has announced.
The former Manchester United, Everton and England player becomes the permanent successor to Mark Sampson, who was sacked last September.
Neville takes over a team that are third in the world rankings, behind only the United States and Germany.
— Philip Neville (@fizzer18) January 23, 2018
Provided by Press Association Sport
The FAW confirmed Giggs’ appointment via its official Twitter feed with a short film of a Wales shirt having the name ‘Giggs’ pressed into it, with an accompanying caption of #CroesoGiggsy (Welcome Giggsy).
It will be Giggs’s first permanent managerial post and he succeeds fellow former Wales international Chris Coleman, who bowed out after the national side failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup finals in Russia and now manages English Championship side Sunderland.
“I am so proud to have been given the honour of managing the National Team,” said Giggs in a FAW statement.
“The challenges that we have ahead of us with the Nations League and qualification for UEFA EURO 2020 excite me a great deal.
— Wales 🏴 (@Cymru) January 15, 2018
“I can’t wait to start working with the players as we prepare for those crucial games later in the year.”
Giggs’ first fixture in charge of Wales will be in the 2018 China Cup against the hosts in Nanning on March 22.
This will be Giggs’s first full-time job as a manager, although he was in caretaker charge of United for four games at the end of the 2013/14 season after David Moyes was sacked.
Giggs, 44, has been the clear favourite for the Wales job since he declared his interest last month, saying: “I’ve played for Wales and I’ve said that I want to go back into coaching.
“Obviously that is one of the top jobs.”
Giggs was interviewed last week along with former international team-mate Craig Bellamy and Osian Roberts, Coleman’s former assistant who is also the FAW’s technical director.
Former Wales defender Mark Bowen was also interviewed after leaving his role as Stoke’s assistant manager a few days earlier.
Giggs’s contract, which will reportedly take him up to the 2022 World Cup, was tied up over the weekend.
The FAW was keen to make the appointment before the UEFA Nations League draw, which takes place in Switzerland on January 24.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) January 15, 2018
Giggs, who won 64 Wales caps between 1991 and 2007, has been out of football for 18 months since leaving the coaching staff at Manchester United.
He spent two seasons as Louis van Gaal’s assistant coach, but he left Old Trafford in the summer of 2016 following Jose Mourinho’s appointment as manager.
That ended a long association with the club where he made a record 963 appearances as a player, scoring 168 goals.
Coleman spent nearly six years as Wales manager before leaving to take over relegation-threatened Sunderland in November.
He became the most successful manager in Welsh football history when he guided the country to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 – Wales’s first major tournament for 58 years — only to suffer the heartache of missing out on the World Cup.
Provided by AFP Sport