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Black History Month: An American in China

Lyle Martin went where no American soccer player had ever gone before: China.

MLS - Chivas USA - 2007 Headshots Photo by J. Miranda/MLS

When a player leaves the United States for a foreign land, they have to contend with new surroundings, a new culture, and sometimes a new language. For many players, they can lean on the experiences of others who walked their path before them to that league. However, when you are the first to play in a league, you have to be willing to take on the experience on your own. Lyle Martin, an African American from California, did just that in 2010 when he took his talents to China.

Martin grew up in Bakersfield, California and played college soccer for the CS-Bakersfield Roadrunners. The right back scored 29 goals in his time there. He also played for the Bakersfield Brigade of the Premier Development League (now USL League Two), scoring 14 goals in 26 matches over two seasons.

Lyle Martin was a supplemental draft pick of Chivas USA in 2007, but opted instead to sign for the Vancouver Whitecaps (then in USL). There, he started 19 of 24 matches and earned the team’s Newcomer of the Year award. He helped the team to the USL First Division title. He played with the Whitecaps for 2 seasons, eventually leaving the team after the 2009 season.

Lyle Martin then decided to take an unprecedented path, but the asphalt had been laid the summer before. Before the 2009 season, Martin went on trial with Nanchang Bayi in China. While he opted to return to Vancouver after that trial, the positive experience he had got him thinking about making a move that no others had made. In an interview with YanksAbroad.com, Martin said it was his agent that floated the initial idea. ”My agent told me that in China there is an intense soccer league and it will add a positive dimension to my game. He was the one that proposed this idea. My reaction when he told me was probably like everyone else’s out there. ‘What? China? They have a league?’”

In February 2010, he left the United States for China to sign with Shaanxi Chan-Ba of the Chinese Super League. Martin didn’t know much about the team or the league, deciding to trust his agent in making the move. He made his Chinese debut as a forward on March 28, 2010, becoming the first American to play for a Chinese professional soccer club. He scored his first goal for Shaanxi on April 25th, a game-winning goal against Shenzen Ruby. However, he didn’t latch on, and in June 2010 he was released by Shaanxi after making only 5 appearances for the club.

He wasn’t on the sidelines long, joining Chinese League One’s Hubei Greenery. He played there for the rest of the season, scoring 3 goals in 13 matches. In March 2011, he made the move to Beijing Baxy. Martin only played 13 games for Beijing before being released in the summer and returning to the United States.

Lyle Martin, in an interview with NPR, expressed disbelief at the fan support in China. ”When we would go to training sessions, there would be anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 people watching,” Martin explained. “[It] was a shock at first; I’m not used to that, people don’t recognize me...I never thought of myself as a star in the game. I was just always a player that worked hard. ... They would always want to take pictures and get autographs — the fans were beyond great.”

Still, despite the great crowds, living in China as the lone American in a league, and an African American at that, was difficult. The Chinese Super League was a league that Americans didn’t know much about, and Martin’s teammates didn’t know much about how Americans played, either. “The players treat me like I am the American, as though I represent the whole country,” Martin explained in a June 2010 interview. He also recognized that while the Chinese players weren’t as strong or fast as Americans, they had excellent technical ability:

There is constant movement and running off the ball. Most of the players here are very technical. What some players may lack in speed and strength is most definitely made up by their technical ability”

Chinese culture was also a barrier to Lyle Martin while he played, along with learning the language. Martin explained to Yanks Abroad that the traffic was “crazy,” but that he enjoyed life in China. “It’s different from what I’m used to but you only live once...I am blessed to be able to go out and see the world while being able to do what I love. It gets no better than that.”

Lyle Martin eventually returned to the United States, playing for the San Antonio Scorpions and Chivas USA before ending his career. He’s still the only American to play in the Chinese Super League, but he hopes he’s not the last:

“I hope that I may have opened doors for many others like me in the USA. Now I don’t know if that is the case, but I hope so and if so, I will work that much harder for the next American that wants to try this league. Also the fact that I am doing what I love feels amazing.”

The Chinese Super League has improved its stature over the past decade since Lyle Martin played in the league. An influx of money has brought in some of the world’s most recognizable names, but the league has constantly changed its rules regarding foreign players. Eventually, we may see another American head to China to make an impact on the game, but whoever does can learn from the trail that Lyle Martin blazed as the first American to take their soccer talents to Chinese soil.

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For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.