An American in the Chinese Super League

You need to dig. Really dig. Into what feels like the deepest corner of the Internet. First to a message board from 2010, which sends you to a website written only in Mandarin, with images and symbols you couldn’t even begin to decipher. But it’s right there, on that page. A little 2 inch box that houses the pixels of the only goal that the only American has ever scored in the Chinese Super League. The man in the video, netting the 88th minute winner in a 3-2 victory for Shaanxi Chan-Ba is Lyle Martin. Because years before high profile stars like Gervinho, Jackson Martinez and Ramires would make global headlines by signing with the Chinese Super League, Lyle Martin went East.

Martin played college soccer at the Cal State-Bakersfield, becoming the program’s second leading scorer, and played one season with the USL’s Premier Development League’s Bakersfield Brigade before joining the USL’s Vancouver Whitecaps in 2007. While with the Whitecaps, Martin floated the idea to his agent about potentially playing overseas. At dinner after a Whitecaps game, his agent recommended China as a place where he could flourish.

“I just looked at him with a baffled look, like, China?! Are we thinking about the same place here?” Martin said.

But Martin saw an opportunity to not only grow his game, but provide for the future of his family. So after playing out the final year of his contract with Vancouver in 2009, Martin went on trial in China, and signed with Chinese Super League team, Shaanxi Chan-Ba, a club based in the city of Xian, in the northwest of China.

But signing was just the first step. Unlike swapping teams in the United States,  Martin was trading one culture for another. Everything was an adjustment.

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“It just seemed like a different world,” Martin said. “From the foods you eat to the way they drive to basic mannerisms. You really learn a lot about yourself, how emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually fit you are. Because you really have to go into your zone to just stay whole, to be able to compete.”

Another huge adjustment was the transition to the league’s highly-technical style and demanding expectations.

“Everybody there has a great first touch, everybody there has a great shot, everyone has great passing abilities,” he said. “Unlike here, they don’t play games at the end of practice. The whole session is technical training. If you mess up, they’ll call you out, make you do extra training before or after practice.” 

Another added pressure on Martin was his status as a foreign player. Chinese Super League teams are only allowed five international players on their roster, and can only field up to four international players, in order to encourage domestic development. But because of that restriction, much was expected from those select foreign players.

“I wish it would have lasted a little bit longer, but, over there, they want instant results from their foreigners,” Martin said.  “There’s no time to gel and learn your players, they want you in there straight away getting wins. So, we got replaced quite quickly with the first team. It was an eye-opening about what it is they’re expecting.”

Despite only making 5 appearances with the team, Martin did net a goal, making him the first and only American to score in the Chinese Super League. He came on as a sub in the team’s first game of the season, and scored the game-winner in the 88th minute to give them the 3-2 victory in front of 50,000 screaming fans.’

“That was the first game of the season, it really got us going,” he said.

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One of the best parts of his experience, according to Martin was the passion and adoration of the fans.

“People would recognize you while you’re walking around and call your name and stop you, take pictures, sign autographs,” he said. “You felt like Messi or Ronaldo.”

After his time with Shaanxi Chan-Ba, Martin spent time with two other Chinese teams, Hubei Greenery and Beijing Baxy both of China’s second division, before returning to the United States and playing 16 games with the San Antonio Scorpions.

Martin now runs Mighty Kicks San Joaquin Valley, an organization that uses soccer to empower underserved youth in the San Joaquin Valley, but still remembers his time in China fondly. 

“I had a great time over there. No regrets,” he said.

  • Boston Red

    In the “needs an asterisk” category, there’s one other American who played in the league. Though he was capped for Jamaica, Ryan Johnson moved to the US as an infant and is a dual citizen. He scored 14 goals in China.