Loudoun United FC's Ryan Martin has made the most of an overhauled squad led by a core group of new arrivals that have set the club out to a strong start to its new campaign. | Photo courtesy Loudoun United FC
In a recent poll of USL Championship Head Coaches conducted by Backheeled.com, one of the questions posed was which of the league’s managers was the most underrated.
The most popular answer?
Loudoun United FC’s Ryan Martin, who when told of this by his club’s staff felt “honored and humbled, and very thankful” for the appreciation.
“Obviously I’m biased by being in the league, but there’s some incredible coaches in the league whom I have a tremendous amount of respect for,” said Martin this week. “So, whenever you get recognition for the work that you’re doing, and by really talented people, it’s always an honor.”
This year, however, we’re starting to see the full measure of the Head Coach Martin can be.
Appointed as United’s Head Coach midway through its inaugural season, the past three-and-a-half seasons have seen Martin lead the club, but without the autonomy of most of his peers. Last season, through the club’s ownership and partnership with D.C. United, he moved through three different styles of play as the MLS club made changes at the top of its coaching staff.
“First part of the season, you know, play like Hernan Losada, 3-5-2 and high pressing, we’re building your roster out that way,” said Martin. “Then you get Chad Ashton come in and then you get Wayne Rooney, who wants to do a 4-2-3-1. We want a little bit different way of playing and we want you to do the same, but with less resources and less time.”
With the primary ownership of Loudoun United acquired this offseason by Attain Sports & Entertainment, the connection to D.C. United as a minority stakeholder remains. But significantly, Martin is now getting to forge his own destiny with his own squad and ideas.
It’s a major change, and already seemingly paying dividends.
“It’s a tremendously different feeling and it’s a massive relief for me,” said Martin. “Having Greg Baroni in and the new ownership has been great. I still have a relationship with D.C., which has been really, really good, but this year is like ‘OK, Ryan, you can be you and develop the team the way you want to do it.’”
Appointed Loudoun United FC's Head Coach midway through its inaugural season, Ryan Martin now has a free rein to produce the style of play he's looking for and results at Segra Field. | Photo courtesy Trevor Ruszkowski / Indy Eleven
Loudoun enters its contest this Sunday afternoon with Oakland Roots SC at Segra Field (4 p.m. ET | ESPN+) having already earned victories against Memphis 901 FC and Birmingham Legion FC – two of last year’s top four teams in the Eastern Conference – and a home draw with defending Championship title holders San Antonio FC. It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, but the vision for how the team wants to pursue results is coming into clearer focus each time.
“I want to be proactive in everything we do,” said Martin. “Even when we don’t have the ball, I want to be able to dictate what the opposition does. I want to have a ball, I want to have more possession, but for me, it’s really about creating chances and it’s about creating opportunities. It’s about being dangerous. I want to be a destination where players want to come and play because of the style of our play.”
It’s that selling point – alongside that of the club’s new ownership and direction – that helped bring some of the players who have made a notable start to the new season as part of a squad that has undergone almost a complete overhaul. Only five players from last season’s squad have appeared for Loudoun so far this campaign, with new arrivals like Kalil ElMedkhar, Panos Armenakas, Koa Santos and Zach Ryan – who has a team-high four goals to go with two assists – creating a central group to build around.
For Ryan – who experienced the same fluctuations as a player Martin did as a coach with the New York Red Bulls II last season – the day-in and day-out vision the side has built is an essential foundation for consistent success.
“It’s difficult when guys are coming up and down – I was one of the guys coming down,” said Ryan. “It’s hard to build team chemistry. And the one thing that Ryan immediately made clear was we’re going to have our own cohesive group.
“We certainly have gotten guys down from the First Team and they've helped a lot in Jeremy [Garay] and [Gaoussou] Samake as well as the draft picks like Alex Nagy. But being able to build a nucleus and identity having the same group of guys on the training ground every single day is a massive part of building a successful team. In a pure second team environment when guys are constantly through a revolving door, it’s hard to build that.”
Forward Zach Ryan has been one of the new arrivals at Loudoun United FC this offseason to make a key contribution to the club's good start to the new campaign. | Photo courtesy Don Fuller / Loudoun United FC
Martin’s selling of the team to potential free agents this offseason – and his subsequent work on the training ground to build a distinct identity for the team – comes in part from his own coaching pathway. The son of legendary Ohio Wesleyan Head Coach Jay Martin – who is the NCAA’s all-time leader in coaching wins in men’s soccer and has won two NCAA Division III titles since taking the helm in 1977 – Ryan grew up around the game and learned early lessons toward his future path.
“The first thing I really remember about him in terms of a lot of different things he did was I would always go to his office, basically my off days or after school or different things like that,” said Martin. “The big thing that he always did was he had an open conference room where he had TVs going and different things. What it did was it created an environment of him being able to develop individual relationships by players always being in his office, being around his office, and it really created a unique identity of belonging.
“I think that was something I always took away. Now when I go – and I was fortunate enough to go down to the NCAA Tournament this past year – you have an incredible sense of belonging to a community that's bigger than yourself.”
The elder Martin’s implementation of other elements such as focuses on the mental side of the game – something uncommon in the late 1980s – and ideas like setting quantitative goals, how you achieve them, and how you reevaluate them also had an impact.
After a brief playing career – including a stint with Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer – his coaching path picked back up in 2007 when he joined the staff at Wake Forest University with then-Head Coach Jay Vidovich. From there he joined John Harkes’ staff as the U.S. Soccer legend led FC Cincinnati into its inaugural season in the USL Championship in 2016, learning lessons from both about what it takes to lead.
“It was really a masterclass in attention to detail,” Martin said of working for Vidovich. “How do you really emphasize the game from a tactical point? How do you leave no stone unturned in terms of your preparation for game day? And then really the importance of training and maximizing everything you can get out of a training session.
“John [Harkes] is a master of managing people and getting the best out of people and seeing what makes them tick. So, from my whole perspective, I’ve had three really good mentors and people to help me grow through my journey.”
Ryan Martin was part of Head Coach John Harkes' staff in FC Cincinnati's inaugural season in the USL Championship in 2016, with Martin citing Harkes as a key mentor in his path. | Photo courtesy FC Cincinnati
Now Loudoun United is hoping Martin and his squad can achieve something it didn’t in its prior iteration – reach the postseason. With additional investors recently announced – including NFL defensive lineman Yannick Ngakoue, MLB outfielder Tommy Pham, and retired NBA Champion Jeff Teague coming on board – Martin believes the club is headed in the right direction at the top.
“I think it’s going to open up a lot of doors in terms of infrastructure, training grounds, hopefully, you know, maybe a grass field and improvements to the stadium,” said Martin. “I think these are all things where we can really make Loudon a destination for top players in the league and make it a competitive group and go after championships. That’s the ambition that Greg and the team support have, and that’s my ambition as well.”
If everything goes to plan, Martin might go from being the USL Championship’s most underrated Head Coach to the sort of recognition some of the peers he enjoys matching strategies against – like Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s Bob Lilley, Indy Eleven’s Mark Lowry and the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Neill Collins – have earned.
“I don’t necessarily love playing all these guys because they’re very good teams and coaches, but I enjoy when I look at the end of the day, okay, here's a top-level coach,” said Martin. “Here are some guys that have gone through it. Even like a Tommy Soehn [at Birmingham Legion FC] this past weekend, it’s an opportunity to test yourself and see where you are as a coach.”
A new-look squad guided by Head Coach Ryan Martin has Loudoun United moving in a positive direction as the club enters a new era this season. | Photo courtesy Don Fuller / Loudoun United FC
It might be early in Loudoun’s new era, but the paths the club and Martin himself are currently on bode well for what each of their futures will hold.
“Not everything’s always going to be perfect all the time,” said Ryan. “We always stress what’s in our control, and what can we do to get the outcomes we want? I think that the result of the poll, I think it’s an indication that coaches recognize that and see that in Coach Ryan. I certainly see that as well.”