By John Mantia
Fulfilling expectations for soccer potential is difficult; the measure of success is an ever-sliding scale. Over the course of his seven-year professional career, Kyle Martino achieved a great deal. Yet, for a player touted as the future playmaker the United States so badly needs, his sudden retirement, nearly a year to the day, befuddled many.
Starting more games than any other Los Angeles Galaxy player in the 2007 season, Martino enjoyed a revival of sorts that year. Playing on the wing, he returned to the form that won him the 2002 MLS Rookie of the Year. He expected to contribute similarly in 2008, but the closest he came to the touchline was in the press box.
Martino spoke exclusively with Goal.com from his home in Manhattan about life after soccer, his rise as a broadcaster and his hopes for Major League Soccer.
How has your life changed as you move from the world professional soccer player to finance and broadcasting?
The only big difference is that instead of going to practice in board shorts and flip-flops, I put on a suit (laughs); that is the hardest transition. I work at an amazing place, it’s the Real Madrid of the financial world, Lenox Advisors, with lots of former athletes, and so I get a bit of that camaraderie, the team-bonding environment. Once a week, I take classes at Fordham University, and I play pick-up with Claudio Reyna, Richie Williams, and Steve Nash. We put together a good kick-around team.
It was a surprise when you left the Galaxy nearly a year ago. Can you explain the specific circumstances that led to your retirement?
I was struggling that whole season with injuries and it really started piling up. I had two hip surgeries. I knew I was in a lot of pain, and I knew I was going to have to do something in the off-season. A specialist told me I had a bi-lateral sports hernia.
I started doing some investigation into life after soccer, and the light at the end of the tunnel after all of these injuries.
Beyond the injuries, were there other factors in your decision to walk away?
When I came into preseason, last spring, I did so with the idea of at least playing another season. The Galaxy brought Ruud Gullit in and right off the bat the relationship with him was rocky at best. He didn’t really know anything about MLS. To give you an example, he had no idea about the salary cap. He hadn’t really watched any games, and just came in and really let his personality take over and direct things in a negative way. A lot of people who gave a lot for the team and cared a lot about wearing the jersey, were immediately just disregarded, which was kind of sad because there were plenty of people within the Galaxy organization that knew there were a handful of core players that gave so much to the Galaxy and were assets. It was very discouraging. It was, in a little way, the last straw for me.
What was your emotional state soon thereafter?
I had some discussions, after the 2007 season, with the front office about renegotiating my contact, which they were in favor of, to keep me in LA for a while longer.
I remember going into the office, on a Monday, thinking that we would be renegotiating my contact. I returned on Friday and was told that Gullit was in trade talks. When I heard that, trying to get over the injuries and trying to get back on the field for LA, finding out that the coach wanted to trade me -- that was it.
I went in and met with the doctor. We both came to the conclusion that I was getting to the point where I was going to be compromising my quality of life after soccer if I continued to try and play through the injuries. It was time to hang it up.
How are you feeling about the decision?
It was obviously a very emotional decision for me. Sitting in the doctor’s office and going through the pros and cons, and when that final decision came, he got out a tape recorder and we recorded that at this point, his opinion was I wasn’t going to be able to play soccer again period. I remember hearing those words and getting really emotional about it. That said, it was the right decision. I think I definitely miss the game and I miss being out there, but at that point I wasn’t able to do it anymore, and I was causing problems that were going to be lifelong problems.
I never struggled with whether or not it was the right decision, but you can’t help but flip the TV or when I go to the booth to call a game, you can’t help but miss the lifestyle. More than anything I miss the camaraderie of being with the guys. You can’t duplicate that at Chelsea Piers on a Wednesday night.
What are some of your favorite memories from your time as a professional?
I absolutely loved my time in the league. I set a lot of personal goals for myself, and I really almost achieved everyone I set, save going to a World Cup. I reached a lot of the checkpoints for my career and got to play with some amazing players. I got to see the world by kicking a soccer ball around, so my career was something spectacular and amazing.
Throughout most of it, I was so fueled and encapsulated by these thoughts of trying to achieve and getting to next level, to the next point, seldom did I stop and look around and soak it all in. One of the few times I did was at Giants Stadium last year, in front of 66,000 people. Growing up watching the MetroStars, I looked over to my right at one point, and saw David Beckham. I said to myself I’ve done pretty much the majority of what I wanted to do.
You have a unique perspective, not only from the press box, but also from your time in the league. How has MLS changed since your rookie year, and where do you think it will go?
From when I was first in the league in 2002, MLS has made tremendous strides. The expansion, the quality of players, and being able to bring over big name players and have so many teams with their own stadiums. If in 1996 you were to say all of that to people, they would have called you crazy. MLS has turned the corner now, where I don’t think we are too many years off being one of the world leagues and being up there with Premiership and La Liga and all the others.
How did the broadcasting opportunities come about?
Last season, I was practically leading the league in red cards, and I had a couple of opportunities where I had to sit and watch my team play from the booth. While I was sitting in the booth, a short interview turned into a 35-minute stay, because I was having fun. I was really enjoying myself. That along with the David Beckham Show and couple of other opportunities, it somehow clicked. I didn’t change from being myself from when the camera was off. I have some natural knack about being comfortable in front of the camera, talking about the game in a way that people like to hear. It’s not through any training and experience, it’s from a situation or two that was really dumb luck.
Would you like announcing as your future profession?
It’s something I absolutely want to pursue. I’ve talked with the people at ESPN, and had a great time with HDNet. For me, it’s the best possible way to stay involved with the game. I didn’t make it to the World Cup, I was on the doorstep in my playing career, but maybe I can get there as a broadcaster.
What are you most proud of in your career? Any heights you wish you achieved?
Insofar as my achievements, I would give my parents more credit than anyone else, although they might have given me some bad genes along the way where I became injury prone as the scrawny 150-pound kid trying to make people look silly. That wasn’t conducive to a long career. It’s obviously disappointing to make it your goal to make it to a World Cup and potentially play in a big European league, but it wasn’t in the cards. Injuries are a part of the game and I suffered some at some crucial moments, and there are no regrets and nothing to blame for it. It’s unlucky and bad timing.
Was there an apex in your career when you look back and think: If something happened differently, I may still be out there playing?
I can look at an exact moment where everything was coming to a climax and one event derailed me and I never really got back on track after: It was when I suffered an ankle injury against Cameroon in the 2003 Confederations Cup. It was my first opportunity with the senior National Team, my first start, against a quality side in an amazing tournament, and I was having one of the better games I had had in a while. But unfortunately I suffered a bad ankle injury. Really there is no good explanation to why I fell off at that point.
What does the future hold for you?
I’ve definitely transitioned into the next phase in my life, and I am lucky I was given the opportunities I have and I definitely, regardless of where things go from here on, I would like to stay involved in MLS, because I care about the success of the league and can’t wait to watch it grow. I can’t wait to take my kid to an MLS game when there are 20 teams, we’re on ESPN three times a week and I’m calling two of those games.
John Mantia’s “Give & Go” interviews appear every week on Goal.com.