Luciano Emilio has ranked as D.C. United’s leading scorer for every one of his three seasons with the club, scoring 41 goals in 85 matches and winning the MLS MVP award in 2007.
Off the field, the Brazilian went the extra mile to embrace his adopted surroundings, learning English (practiced by serenading his teammates in the D.C. locker room) and making the Washington region a long-term home for him and his family.
Yet when he made a shock return to the club on a short-term contract late last month, many United fans greeted the news with skepticism, or worse.
The D.C. attack ranked as the weakest in the league – and still does. But many wondered if Emilio was the man to help, especially given the club’s original decision to remove him from their 2010 plans and the contentious negotiations that followed when United tried unsuccessfully to broker a trade with the Philadelphia Union or FC Dallas. The ensuing revelation that he has his sights on an eventual move to the Mexican league only added to those doubts.
It all adds up to a complicated comeback for “Luchi,” who must now prove – to supporters, teammates and perhaps foreign suitors as well – that he’s still got something to contribute before his status comes up for review at the end of July. He also has to do so in the difficult setting of a 1-7 team stuck in last place.
“I could be in Philadelphia, I could be in Dallas, I could be anywhere, but I am here and I am happy,” the Brazilian said last week. “I just have to work a lot to be good to play 90 minutes. It’s very important for me to work. D.C. United is my home so I am happy, motivated. My performance is not good as normal, but I keep working to be at my best.”
Emilio has had scant opportunity to exhibit his worth thus far, with conditioning concerns limiting him to two substitute appearances, and he didn’t even make the game-day roster for last week’s home loss to Colorado.
“We had a really hard week of training and he felt like he wasn't going to be able to perform up to his standard,” said head coach Curt Onalfo afterwards.
If Emilio is feeling the pressure as he tries to rapidly ratchet up his fitness levels, nudge United’s incumbent strikers aside for playing time and eventually assure his own future, he’s not showing it.
“I think the relationship between Luciano and D.C. is going well,” he said. “We don’t have any problem and everything that was in the past is just a professional situation, about contracts, about trades. This is normal in our league.
“These last two months I was working to get a contract in another country, and right now I am in activity,” Emilio continued. “D.C. can extend my contract after July and [while] I am working, it’s good for me, too – for both parties it’s good. I can work, I have expectations to go outside the country [or] D.C. can extend my contract. I am here to help, too, in these three months.”
Emilio’s candid demeanor can be endearing to fans when things are going well, and exasperating when they don’t. But it’s a refreshing approach compared to the bland generalities that other athletes use to couch their intentions.
When asked about his self-described “dream” to play in Mexico, he said, “Yeah, but it could be July, could be next year. So I am not so hurried about it. It could be any time.
“But I don’t worry about it right now, because of my situation. The very important thing is to be here and work and to recover my best performances.”