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Martinez, Legion FC show fighting qualities, earn top spot in Eastern Conference

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 05/01/23, 6:48AM EDT


Underwhelming first half gave way to vintage display by veteran forward in victory against Hartford

Birmingham Legion FC's Enzo Martinez scored twice and provided the assist on his side's stoppage-time game-winner in a vintage display. | Photo courtesy Birmingham Legion FC

Enzo Martinez had seen this movie before.

With the chance to move to the top of the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference standings with a win, the veteran forward and his teammates were determined to take advantage this time around as they hosted Hartford Athletic at Protective Stadium.

“Last week before the Loudoun game we had the same opportunity, and we dropped the ball on that one,” said Martinez. “Loudoun beat us in every way, and then we had the same opportunity today and wanted to make sure we did everything we could to not let that happen again.”

In a gripping second-half performance, Martinez more than did his part.

The 32-year-old, with assistance from Legion FC original Prosper Kasim, delivered a turnaround that saw the hosts rally from an underwhelming first-half display to grab a thrilling result. While Alex Crognale headed home the winner in stoppage time for a 3-2 victory, the pugnacious playmaker’s fingerprints were all over the performance.

Martinez delivered the assist on Crognale’s goal – the 40th regular-season helper of his career – after having scored twice himself off assists from Kasim to pull his side back to the top of the standings one quarter of the way through the regular season.

After battling minor injuries early in the season, Martinez looked like himself again, and it showed.

“Today it felt like just me,” he said. “A few weeks ago it was Neco [Brett], then it was Gabriel [Alves], it’s always someone in the team that steps up at the right time when we’re needing it. That’s a good thing about this team that we have, and I’ve said it from the beginning, we have players that can do that at any moment.”

Birmingham could have counted itself fortunate to be in position to rally, given how one-sided the first half had been in favor of Hartford. The visitors not only took the lead through Jeciel Cedeno seven minutes before the break but also hit the woodwork twice and eschewed other opportunities to find the net that could have made it a major hill to climb for Legion FC.

“It was probably one of our worst halves ever,” said Legion FC Head Coach Tom Soehn. “We had a harsh talk in the locker room about our character, making sure we know who we are. We had an opportunity to get to the top of the table, and understanding what that means. I didn’t quite say it that nicely, if you can imagine, but at least it motivated us to come out second half. They offered us the ability to stay in the game by only being down one they gave us the chance to come back.”

Even after Martinez had drawn Birmingham level for the first time in the 65th minute, reaching 100 combined goals and assists in the league, it only took two minutes for Hartford to cut open the Legion FC defense again. Prince Saydee picked up his second assist of the game with a through-ball that Kyle Edwards finished calmly to restore the Athletic’s lead.

The hosts were never going to back down, though, and when Kasim threaded a perfect low cross from the left to find Martinez arriving at the back post for a close-range finish with 14 minutes remaining it provided the platform for Crognale’s winner. Rising above a crowd of players just outside the six-yard area to nod home Martinez’s delivery, the center back showed again why he’s such a threat at set pieces.

“If we put good balls into the box, he’s got a real height advantage and he knows how to head the ball,” said Martinez. “You can be tall and not know how to head the ball. But he has those qualities. We just have to keep focused on putting good balls in for him and giving the guys in the box a chance.”

After fumbling away their chance at top spot two weeks ago, Martinez believes the side needs to ensure it doesn’t leave itself facing similar uphill battles in the future. At the same time, with the quality and fight the side displayed on Sunday evening it might just be set up to battle for top spot throughout the rest of the campaign.

“If we could turn it around at will, then that says something in that moment that we shouldn’t have found ourselves in that situation,” said Martinez. “Hopefully we learn from that. It was all of us. Things happen like that where things aren’t going your way and it’s just a domino effect throughout the team, but we just kept battling and fighting. That’s the quality we have in this team that can make those things happen.”

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