Little boys in Brazil don’t have much say when it comes to the first-choice for their future profession. When Brazilian fathers find out their offspring possess a Y-chromosome, cleats and jerseys bolt atop the family’s shopping list. Before they enter elementary school, most Brazilians can juggle a soccer ball and already have dreams of turning professional in the world’s most popular sport.
D.C. United midfielder Marcelo Saragosa and his father Gilson, were no different.
“Whenever a boy is born in Brazil, the father is already thinking about his son’s soccer career,” says Saragosa, now entering his tenth season as a pro. “As a kid, you invest all your time and hope in soccer. Here there are many sports, but in Brazil there is only one. From the time I was young, I dreamed of playing soccer.”
A year after Saragosa was born in the Brazilian city of Campo Grande, Gilson moved the family to Santa Catarina – Brazil’s second southernmost state. While his father practiced dentistry, Marcelo practiced soccer, enrolling in a ‘soccer school’ not far from his home. Saragosa’s skills were obvious, and the school’s taskmaster – who had been a former professional at Portuguesa – recommended him from a tryout with Sao Paolo FC, one of Brazil’s most important teams.
At 13 years old, Saragosa packed his bags and headed north for a five day trial.
“I was very nervous,” Saragosa now admits. “Sao Paolo is the team that produces the most players in Brazil, so I felt a lot of pressure. There were already guys there that were on Brazil’s Under-15 national team. I had one chance. I had to give it my all, and do something different, or else I wasn’t going to earn a spot.”
Saragosa did earn a spot, but his transition from small-town Santa Catarina to Sao Paolo – Brazil’s most densely populated city – was anything but easy.
“It was my first time being away from my mom and dad and four siblings,” he recalls. “It was tough. I would call my mom and cry, and she would tell me I could come home if I wanted to. But my dad said no, that Sao Paolo was where my future was and where I needed to be.”
Spurred on by his father’s encouragement, Saragosa stuck it out – and soon found himself playing alongside some of the world’s most talented young players. Luis Fabiano, Julio Baptiste and Kaka were all among his contemporaries during Saragosa’s decade with Sao Paolo.
But in 2005, with playing time hard to come by on Sao Paolo’s loaded first team, Saragosa went in search of opportunity. As many Brazilian players do he considered a move overseas, but when the chance to join the Los Angeles Galaxy arose, those around Saragosa didn’t see a future - or much of a present - in MLS.
“Everyone asked me why would I leave Sao Paolo - and to go to America?” Saragosa says. “People thought they didn't have soccer here, they asked me what I was going to do.”
After a successful loan stint with Los Angeles in 2004, Saragosa joined the Hollywood side full-time the next season. That year the Galaxy won both MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup. Saragosa would spend the next four seasons in Dallas, where he nearly won another Open Cup in 2007 – falling in the final to New England. In 2009 he moved to Chivas USA, but the club decided against picking up Saragosa’s contract after the 2010 campaign. The dogged midfielder was again in search of work.
When trials in Brazil and with Greek first-division club Panetolikos failed to produce a long-term fit, Saragosa considered a return to MLS. Just before the 2012 season, D.C. assistant Pat Onstad contacted the Brazilian about a move to United.
Saragosa jumped at the chance.
“This is a team I always liked watching,” Saragosa explains. “When I saw the Brazilians they had here I saw them touching the ball and playing a happy soccer. It reminded me of Brazil. I was really happy for the opportunity to come to D.C.”
Saragosa’s happiness would be short-lived. His father suffered a heart attack in March, and passed away in mid-April. While D.C. climbed to the top of the Eastern Conference, Saragosa spent much of the season’s opening months traveling between Washington and Brazil. When he finally returned to the team in May, the motivation that had epitomized Saragosa’s rugged style was gone.
“There were some days I didn't even want to come to practice,” Saragosa says as his eyes begin to water. “The motivation of my life was gone. Why was I here? Then, to come here and not play, it felt like all the doors around me were closing.”
Feeling he had little to lose, Saragosa requested a meeting with head coach Ben Olsen. An honest discussion followed, during which the 30-year-old admitted he was unhappy. The death of his father had stripped his will, and a lack of playing time laid waste to whatever confidence Saragosa had left. He didn’t ask to start, but instead for ten minutes of playing time to Olsen – and to himself – that he could still contribute.
On August 22, Olsen obliged. In a critical match against Chicago, the second-year coach gave Saragosa his first league start since early May. The results were undeniable. With Saragosa patrolling the midfield, D.C. dominated the Fire.
“I was impressed with a lot of guys starting with Marcelo,” Olsen said in the moments after United’s 4-2 win over Chicago. “He set a good tone and I’m proud of him. He has had a tough year and I have relied on him very sparingly. He’s always telling me, ‘I got it, you need to put me in the game.’”
Since that match, Saragosa has yet to be left out of Olsen’s starting lineup. With D.C. on the verge of an all-or-nothing playoff push, the veteran thinks he has plenty more to give as the Black-and-Red’s younger players look for their first taste of the postseason.
“I was telling some of the guys the other day that if we dedicate ourselves properly for the next few months, it can change everything,” Saragosa said. “Being a champion can change your life and the life of your family. It can earn you a new contract, or help take you to Europe. Everything we have ever worked for is on the line right now.”
This feature was originally released on September 15, 2012 in an issue of the D.C. United Matchday Program.