Martinez finally turning the corner for America in Liguilla

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Pedro Pardo
The summer 2018 arrival hasn't done much for the club in his Liga MX career, but made the difference in the playoffs with a double Thursday

Signing Roger Martinez was a lot more like a hopeful shot from 30 yards out than a penalty kick. The Colombian forward was never a sure thing.

He arrived from Villarreal in summer 2018, fresh off a semester in Spain during which he'd scored just one goal. Prior to that, he was kicking around in China. America needed the attacking help, though, and despite flirtations with players like PSV striker Luuk de Jong, U.S. international Jozy Altidore and other big-name players, it was Martinez they hoped would fill the void.

It was hardly because of his skill that America won the Apertura, but now as it begins its quest for the Clausura, Martinez is getting hot at the right time. He scored his first double in Mexico on Thursday, helping Las Aguilas soar past Cruz Azul, 3-1, in the first leg of a Liga MX quarterfinal. 

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The pair of goals runs his total to 10 in league matches since arriving last year, and combined with the goal he scored to help America top Veracruz in the final weekend of the regular season, the tide may finally be turning.

America has turned into a team that relies too heavily on getting goals from set pieces. In the Apertura, center back Bruno Valdez was the club's top scorer - by no small margin. This tournament, winter signing Nico Castillo led the way with five goals, while Henry Martin scored four. Martinez had just three goals, one of which came from the penalty spot.

The poor regular season will be forgotten if Martinez continues to find the back of the net during the Liguilla. It was rare to see Martinez making so much happen in the build-up, and especially rare to see him do it against Cruz Azul. His first goal saw him get a window of space outside the box, aim and fire into the back of the net.

It was a backbreaker, sending America into the locker room with the halftime lead after La Maquina thought it had the game back under control from the early lead it let slip away.

Roger Martinez Club America

Instead, it threw things completely out of whack for last season's runner-up and led to a second half in which Cruz Azul played nothing like it normally does. Rather than being compact and relying on an experienced defense, Pedro Caixinha's club looked panicked. Martinez was able to take advantage again.

With Andres Ibarguen tucking inside and no defender on him, Cruz Azul center back Igor Lichnovsky had to make a choice. He went to stop the ball, as did several of his teammates. That left Martinez unmarked and even as he was closed down once the ball came to his feet, he kept his cool and added the second.

Despite the lack of production earlier in the season, it's not stunning to see Martinez respond well to the pressure. This week, he said he didn't get brought down by those who pointed to himself and the rest of the America attack as the problem with the team heading into the Liguilla.

"There are always going to be critics here. It's a 'grande'. We're always going to be ready for all that and try to show on the field that this team can do big things. More than it weighing on you, you have to think that it's lucky, a privelage to be able to wear this shirt - and even more in the final stage, what we know is the most important moment of the tournament," Martinez said earlier this week.

He pushed on despite taking the brut of a physical Cruz Azul defense on Thursday, with America coach Miguel Herrera saying "Roger suffered various blows, but it's football. We've got to recover for Sunday."

Sunday the club fears becoming, as Herrera put it, another Barcelona or Ajax. There's a lead for America to protect thanks to Martinez finally locking in during one of the most important moments of the year. He'll have more chances to latch on to as the Liguilla continues.

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