Collin Martin says he expects to be part of “something special” at North Carolina FC after signing for the club on a two-year deal.

After four seasons with the now-defunct San Diego Loyal, the 29-year-old heads back to the Tarheel State, having played college soccer for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.

North Carolina FC are also making a return, entering the USL Championship fray once again as an expansion team after three seasons in League One, the last of which saw them crowned champions.

“I’m very excited to be signing with NCFC at a time where the club has just won USL League One and is now pushing to enjoy success in the USL Championship,” Martin said.

“I can’t wait to see what this club achieves in the future and to be a part of something special in North Carolina.”

Speaking to Outsports, the Maryland-born player said: “Moving back to the east coast and closer to my family was definitely a factor in my decision to join NCFC.

“I was fortunate to play in front of my sister and her family in San Diego and I want to be able to have family at games in North Carolina. Also, only playing at Wake Forest for a year, I wanted to experience North Carolina again and playing there.”

There’ll be at least one familiar face in the locker room too, with the Championship newcomers having also recently snapped up Martin’s old Loyal teammate, forward Evan Conway.

“I’m really excited to continue to play with Evan. He was one of my good friends in San Diego and I enjoyed playing with him a lot. It’s going to be really nice to be able to start our careers at NCFC together,” added Martin.

The midfielder came out as gay via his social media accounts in June 2018 while playing in MLS with Minnesota United.

When Carl Nassib officially announced his retirement from the NFL three months ago, Martin was left as one of just a few LGBTQ athletes currently active in professional men’s sports in the U.S. to have come out publicly, along with 21-year-old Luke Prokop in hockey, and Anderson Comas and Solomon Bates in baseball.

Martin’s courage in coming out had earned him the Outsports Male Hero of the Year Award five years ago, and he has since gone on to embrace his visibility, working on LGBTQ-inclusion initiatives such as Playing for Pride — raising money for the Audre Lorde Project — and Common Goal’s Play Proud.

“There is a source of pride knowing that I’m one of the few out pro athletes on the male side and I don’t take that lightly,” he added.

In an interview with Outsports last month, Martin reflected on the moment in September 2020 when his Loyal teammates walked off the field against Phoenix Rising after an opponent taunted Martin with a homophobic slur. In doing so, the Loyal forfeited the match and any chance of making the playoffs.

The incident drew global attention as an example of great allyship in sports. “The overall actions of the team, my coach, my owner, all spoke way beyond what I could have personally,” said Martin, looking back.

On behalf of the Loyal, and in recognition of the impact made by that moment, he accepted the Harvey Milk Champion of Equality Award at the San Diego LGBT Center earlier this year.

Meanwhile, in a Q&A with Queerty the following month, Martin mentioned his relationship with his Austin-based boyfriend, which began with Instagram comments and DM slides before their first in-person meetup after a Loyal fixture away to San Antonio FC.

“Obviously, with my schedule, I can’t really be traveling much, so he’s made a ton of effort to get out here [to San Diego], which has been amazing,” said Martin.

The former U.S. age-group international is not a prolific user of social media by any means, but in July, he did post images from a “mid-season reset” in Montana, including one of investor and “marginal Hyrox athlete”, Zach Ware.

Then on Tuesday this week, Ware posted over on X (formerly known as Twitter) about his partner’s aversion to scheduling, leading to a reply from Martin.

Within 24 hours, North Carolina FC had confirmed Martin’s arrival. A local realtor quote-tweeted the club’s announcement post and welcomed the player and Ware to Raleigh.

All of this amounts to a next level in Martin’s visibility as an out gay athlete but as he told CBS8 in June, that’s something he now embraces. “You have to be willing to share deep aspects about yourself and to be able to grow with the people that you love,” he said.

“When I think about moments that I’ve eventually thrived, it’s because I’ve opened up and I’ve been willing to allow the people in my life, whether that’s my family or the people that I show up to work with, to love me.”

More than ever, Martin’s representation in sports matters. With younger athletes in his own sport like Josh Cavallo and Jake Daniels having come out in the last two years, plus Prokop’s hockey pathway progressing with the Nashville Predators affiliate, he continues to blaze a trail for others.

“I didn’t have a lot of references of gay athletes in professional sports,” added Martin to CBS8. “I wanted to be a reference for kids that were looking up to me, so that’s why visibility is really important to me.”

As he gets ready for a new chapter and starts to make a home with the man he loves, he can be sure many LGBTQ soccer fans will be looking out for North Carolina FC’s results just as they followed the fortunes of San Diego Loyal.

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