Austin Martz, a graduate of Georgetown University, signed his first professional contract in August with Pembroke Atleta FC in the Maltese Premier League. Austin will be blogging for The Athlete Story throughout the season, talking about life living abroad, the lessons of being a new professional, and, well, anything he wants.

Here are the first two installments. 

The Winding Road to Malta

The journey started about two months ago. Sitting in my hometown of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania at a trendy coffee shop called Juice and Java, I completed the payment for a combine — a kind of tryout — in Washington, D.C. It was held by Pro Soccer Consulting, an agency in the United Kingdom that likes to bring American players over to Europe for football tours with the intention of seeing them earn trials or contracts with European clubs. I didn’t really know what the combine would offer. Only a few players possess the skills to stand out at a combine. However, I hoped to impress a few European scouts who would be there, particularly those from Scandinavia.

I felt nervous and excited at the same time. Nervous that I had just wasted money, thinking the combine was a long shot. Excited, for the once-in-a-lifetime chance I would have to play in front of Scandinavian scouts. My heart was set on Sweden or Norway, where two of my friends, Bobby Warshaw (Baerum SK in Norway) and Chase Miller (Bodens BK in Sweden), were already playing. “They’re living the life,” I thought to myself. I wanted to escape to Europe, get out of the Georgetown bubble and be somebody.

After graduation, it was difficult to go from one of the top soccer programs in the country at Georgetown to playing with a bunch of guys like me just trying to book a flight overseas. I missed Georgetown already, and I was left longing for a community I knew would be hard to find again.

I was embarrassed after a failed trial for New York Red Bulls II. My stomach felt uneasy, and I doubted myself. But, even though life had dealt me a lemon, it was sweet instead of sour. I accepted a tour and booked a flight for my next adventure: a 12-day tour in Sweden and Norway. This was going to be my chance to earn a roster spot with a football club in Scandinavia.

Life has a funny way of completely altering your intended course. It’s good to have a plan, but it’s even better to remain open about the plan changing, because there’s always the certainty of the unexpected. When I landed in Stockholm, Sweden it was cold enough for long sleeves and pants, but nowhere near cold enough to deter me. I yearned for a contract there.

Besides eating the same salad, dressing and really weird salty meat for 10 days straight, the trip went as well as I could’ve hoped. I scored arguably the best goal of my life in the first game. I rejoiced inside. It was a dream start. I was on cloud nine in Orebro SK’s stadium. Scouts watching, coaches watching, I fist-pumped after the shot. I even pulled my shirt over my head — yellow card.

A few days later, a Swedish Premier League side Orebro SK sent a scout to watch me play. Unless I had a perfect game, I wouldn’t find myself playing in the Swedish Premier League, called Allesvenskan. Heart thumping, head on a swivel looking for the scout, I was antsy. The whistle sounded. I scored in the first 15 minutes that game, but the scout didn’t arrive until the 22nd minute. While I was so stoked about my game, I immediately felt disappointment upon hearing this news. Sure enough, Orebro signed two Swedish wingers the next day. I couldn’t even get a trial. My big opportunities were evaporating. I needed another spark.

Everyone needs a mentor; someone who’s been there, who’s done it. Someone who can give you comfort when all you feel is uncertainty. Thankfully, Bobby was just a 20-minute metro ride from Oslo. We walked, we talked, we even had kebab together. At the end of it all, I felt comfortable. I was pursuing a dream I’d had for a long time, and there would be nothing to hang my head about if nothing worked out. That night in Bobby’s pad, I prayed. Prayed that I wouldn’t become selfish, prayed that I would be humbled by even having an opportunity to travel and play football in Europe. I prayed that I would trust in His plan for me, no matter what the circumstance. I felt peace, I felt okay. And the fire still burned.

Five minutes into the game against FC Lyn Oslo I rocked my kneecap going in for a tackle. I wanted to punch a wall. I wanted to walk off the field right then and there. Instead, I hobbled for 40 minutes, the remainder of the half, knowing a scout was there. It hardly mattered. While the game only ended 1-0, we got worked. Possession wasn’t even close, and I maybe saw the ball a few times. Another big opportunity seemed to fall through.

Later that evening, Mark Miller, a Maltese coach on the trip, called me and told me to come to the hotel for a chat. I remained patient. I was done assuming. I walked to the hotel to find all of the coaches sitting in a big circle waiting for my arrival. “You have an offer from Pembroke Athleta FC in the Maltese Premier League.” Wait a second, now we’re talking about Malta? Immediately, Mark filled me in, telling me that “my” team was promoted this year, that we’d be a new club to the Premier League with a lot of good signings that would keep us in the league rather than facing relegation as most people would expect.

I left home thinking Sweden and Norway. But like I said, life has a funny way of altering your intended course. I hopped on the plane in Oslo, transferred to a new plane in Brussels, and at 10:30 p.m. on July 31, which happened to be my dad’s birthday (what a gift), landed in Luqa, Malta. I was dripping sweat in a matter of minutes. Rather than waking up to cobblestone and fresh air, I wake up to humidity and sand because I live two minutes from the beach.

Preseason is almost over, and the season starts Aug. 21, but I still feel as though I’m on vacation. This island is beautiful. Google doesn’t lie. Who would have thought a small-town kid from Mechanicsburg would be starting his career on an island just south of Sicily? I’d say nobody. Merhba lill Malta!

Started From the Bottom, but not Quite There Yet: A story of Pembroke Pride

I looked into the stands, hands locked on my hips. Counting, at most, 100 people in the Victor Tedesco Stadium, I thought to myself- “there were more fans filling the bleachers of Northside Elementary School for my high school games as a Mechanicsburg Wildcat.” Nonetheless, the people didn’t matter. The eyes watching didn’t matter. All that mattered was that this was the next step in using my talent to glorify the Lord. Enveloped in sweat and a skin tight jersey, I was ready for this moment. All of the hard work was finally going to be rewarded. “All for you Jesus,” I muttered under my breath as the 95 degree heat that scorched the field set my feet ablaze. One short sprint. Two short sprints. A few claps and a few words of encouragement from teammates followed. Muscles twitching, heart racing, feet on fire, the whistle sounded. My professional debut for Pembroke Atleta FC was underway.

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Pembroke Atleta was founded in 1962 as an amateur team, but didn’t really hit the ground running until 1994 when the team competed in the Maltese Third Division for the first time. Chairman and current President Alex Calleja envisioned a dream. As the only manufacturer of boys and girls school uniforms in all of Malta, the president still wasn’t satisfied. While finding success in the clothing industry, he wanted to translate it to the football field. The dream was simple: to lead Pembroke to the Maltese Premier League. In this moment, I would have imagined him with a glass of wine overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and listening to an old song by the Electric Light Orchestra that sings, “hold on tight, to your dreams.”

The town itself is small, and is the most recently recognized town in Malta. Mechanicsburg, my hometown, is similar. A small town which I believe is engulfed in a giant magical bubble, Mechanicsburg is known for being a supportive community and great town to raise a family. In fact, on the borough sign, it profoundly states “A good place to live.” Thousands gather under the Friday night lights to cheer on the maroon and steel at the John. H Frederick Memorial Field, a town parade brings everyone out of their homes to celebrate Halloween, and the high school is the center of attention known for having wildcat pride.  If you can tell, I’m reminiscing, because who doesn’t miss their high school life sometimes? As the whistle sounded, this is what I remembered. Mechanicsburg is and always will be my roots. Now Pembroke was going to be the tree, blooming from the roots, the next hometown I’d be thanking after the 90 minutes. The next hometown I’d be performing in front of.

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Imagine playing on a team where guys are just scraping by to put food on their plates each night. Imagine a team where one of your goalkeepers is a Maltese legend, still battling at the age of 39, and the other is a 27 year old from Romania who is going to be a father in two months. Imagine a team with a Serbian captain as center back, who has been all over the world to play, and is now vocally leading your team on the pitch. By the way, wish him, Zoran, a big congratulations because He is now engaged to his fiancé as of two nights ago! We’re all behind you Zokie! Finally, imagine a team composed of 3 Italians, 1 Argentinian, 1 Romanian, 1 Serbian, 12 or so Maltese players, a British guy from Norwich, and 5 Americans, who All haven’t even known each other for even a month. So many differences, yet all united under the Pembroke name, the Pembroke tradition, the Pembroke legacy looking to write history for the team in its Premier League debut night. Oh, and all united under the English language. Thank gosh I don’t have to know another.

It took us 10 or so minutes to find our step on the field. Ready to win the club’s first game in premier league history, we were hungry. Yet, we were only taking water for the first 10 minutes. Qormi was a more experienced team with more experienced Maltese players. Ball after ball, they came down the middle, sprayed out wide, and managed good looks at goal. After those nervous 10 minutes, we became composed. Something changed, and we knew this was a team we could beat. They were nothing special, and they certainly didn’t have the heart we had. Thinking they’d walk all over the new kids on the block, the tables turned. Rushing up the field, attacking from the flanks, our chances doubled theirs. It didn’t take very long, maybe by the 25th minute, and my roommate Gus, a native of the San Fernando Valley for all of you southern Californians reading this, floated over the Qormi CB and scored a brilliant header. Our spirits were lifted while claiming a 1-0 lead going into halftime.

Sweat dripping, open wounds from the turf, but still a desire for more, our locker room was flooding with energy. Not just metaphorical energy either, as we all opened carbohydrate packets and sucked the sugary, orange flavored gel down in an instant. Maybe it was this gel, maybe it was a desire to write history, or maybe a combination of both. We came out of halftime and possessed the ball the entire half, eventually claiming the 2-1 win. I played the full 90 minutes. I was tired, yet thrilled. I didn’t score a few chances, yet I remembered there is no I in team. The team always comes first, and that night, on my debut, on Pembroke’s debut, we won. We wrote history for the club. “A dream start for Pembroke,” the Times of Malta read. Our coach, Winston Muscat, was named coach of the week. Gus and Zoran were named to the Team of the Week, and Pembroke was tied for the top of the Table.

We still are. Now with a 2-0 record, we head into this week following the international break with four tough games through September. Our spirits are high, but our intensity is higher. There will be no settling. We haven’t proved anything, yet. Like I said, Qormi challenged us as the new kids on the block. They had a feeling of entitlement to win the game. They’re right: we are the new kids on the block- the indie music prodigy playing a big gig outside of the coffee shop trying to win the attention of the crowds passing by. Nonetheless, we understand it’s a process. We understand it won’t be a piece of cake. It’s a grueling 33 game long season and points need to be grabbed as much as possible. Our goal is to avoid relegation, but after just two games I think there’s a new spirit, a new goal: To compete for the league, and that’s what we’ll do. On to the next one boys!