D.C. United’s Rafael has come a long way from rural Brazil


Forward Rafael celebrated his first goal for D.C. United on March 23 against Columbus. (Nick Wass/AP)

According to biographical data, D.C. United’s Rafael is from Agua Boa, a town in a hilly region of Brazil’s Minas Gerais state – unusually remote roots for a pro athlete, even one from a country renowned for exporting hundreds of soccer pearls around the globe.

But upon recognizing street-level photos of Agua Boa on a laptop, the 20-year-old striker says, “No, no, 33 kilometers.”

Agua Boa is the area’s local population center (18,000). Rafael says he grew up 22 miles away in Catequesis with his parents, brother, sister and 195 other inhabitants.

The village has dodged the information age: It doesn’t appear on maps or many search engines. His mother, Marilei, works for the town. His father, he said, operates a bar, Ultimo Gole (Last Gulp).

There is a soccer field, of course. It is, after all, Brazil, where every boy dreams of becoming the next Ronaldo or Ronaldinho. As a kid, Rafael said he played in bare feet and didn’t lace up cleats until age 13, when he joined street-smart prospects at the Bahia youth academy some 700 miles away in the seaside metropolis of Salvador.

“First days, I cried,” he said through an interpreter, teammate Marcelo Saragosa. “It was complicated for me. I went from a small place to a big place.”

His path to becoming a dedicated urbanite continued this winter with a move to Washington. United acquired him on loan from Bahia and has an option to purchase his contract after the season.

Unused in the first three matches, Rafael needed just 22 minutes of his March 23 debut to open his scoring account, striking from 35 yards during a 2-1 loss to the Columbus Crew at RFK Stadium.

“It was a little frustrating not playing,” he said, “but I knew the time was coming.”

United believes Rafael will become a frontline fixture this season, but because he is young and still acclimating to a new league and country, the club isn’t rushing him.

“He is getting there,” Coach Ben Olsen said. The Columbus game was “a big step for him.”

Big enough, and impressive enough, to likely retain the starting job Friday night at Sporting Kansas City. United (1-2-1) has sputtered in the attack, posting just two goals. Although the source of the problems has been in the midfield, Olsen also seems to need more menacing qualities from his forwards.

So that’s where Rafael comes in.

His goal against the Crew was sublime, and not just because of the extraordinary distance of the shot.

Teammate Chris Pontius won a header near the center circle. As the ball approached him, Rafael warded off fellow Brazilian Glauber with his upper-body strength, then turned past the defender and seized the open space.

He still had not touched the ball. Vision and speed of thought, not footwork, created the opportunity.

He looked ahead and saw goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum out of position after making a clearance. When he did finally make contact with the bouncing ball, it was with both power and nuance. As Gruenebaum scrambled, Rafael rocketed a shot that swerved beyond the keeper’s reach and into the lower right corner.

“I built up confidence and had space to move, but I figured I try it from there – why not?” he said.

Brazilian teammates Saragosa and Raphael Augusto, as well as Brazilian-born physical therapist Gabriel Manoel, have helped ease Rafael’s American transition. He is taking an English class, lives on his own – his older sister will join him in Washington soon — and has discovered Fogo de Chao, the Brazilian churrascaria that serves up endless skewers of meat.

His compatriots tease him about his Portuguese accent, which was forged in the country upbringing and evolved over seven years in Salvador, the capital of Bahia state, where residents are known for their casual lifestyle and speech.

“I call him ‘Bahia,’ but he doesn’t like it,” Saragosa said, glancing at Rafael and smiling before repeating the comment in Portuguese.

Rafael is good-natured about the ribbing and appears to have bonded well with his new teammates.

“He’s a happy person,” Pontius said, “He brightens up the locker room.”

United is counting on him brightening the attack, as well.

“It is hard for someone new, but he is fitting in,” Saragosa said. “To score in his first game, he is more relaxed to do his job.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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