United's New Addition Paid Price for Happiness

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Matias Donnet had had enough.

Boca Juniors, the famed Argentine soccer club, made it clear that the right-side midfielder was no longer in their long-term plans, even though he had scored one of the most important goals in the team's international portfolio three years ago.

Donnet loved playing at La Bombonera , the Chocolate Box, Boca's acoustically intimidating home grounds in a portside barrio in southeast Buenos Aires. He took pride in wearing the famed blue-and-gold star-speckled crest, symbol of the club's working-class pedigree, and, most of all, in beating bitter crosstown rival River Plate in the annual superclasicos .

But with no future at Boca beyond the reserve squad and, at age 26, reaching the crossroads of his career, Donnet opened his checkbook and bought out his own contract for what he said was a $250,000 fee. It was instant free agency.

Instead of landing in Latin America or Europe, Donnet disembarked in MLS with D.C. United, a first-place club stuck in a late-season slump and in need of sophisticated support to reinvigorate its hopes for a second league championship in three years.

Cleared to play this past week, Donnet is likely to make his MLS debut as a second-half substitute today against Chivas USA in Carson, Calif.

"I was very hurt by the way I was treated by Boca's management," he said through an interpreter. "They had forgotten everything I had done for the club. They view you first as a player, not a person, and they don't care about the human side of it. For me, it was time to look for something new."

Over the years, MLS teams have acquired a number of European and South American players to complement the foundation of American talent -- some stars in the twilight of their career who lasted just a few seasons, others young and unprepared for the physical demands of the league.

In Donnet, United just might have discovered a player with both a distinguished pedigree and the hunger and wherewithal to make a considerable impact.

"Opportunities like this don't come along often," said United technical director Dave Kasper, who negotiated a deal that includes a club-held option after this season. "At his age, we feel he still has a lot of soccer ahead of him and, being in a new environment, it's going to help him."

Donnet was the fourth Argentine to sign with United the last two-plus years, joining playmaker Christian Gomez, defender Facundo Erpen and forward Lucio Filomeno. While Gomez and Erpen have become all-stars, the highly touted Filomeno was released in June after failing to score consistently.

Donnet arrived almost three weeks ago and, while awaiting a work visa and international clearance, began to get back into shape and learn United's system. He found a condominium one building over from Erpen's in Ashburn and has been sharing rides to practice with the other Argentines as well as team captain Jaime Moreno, a native of Bolivia.

"I had been to the States before, I liked the culture, the way they treat people, the stadiums, the locker rooms, so for me, it was a good opportunity to experience something new in another country," Donnet said. "Everyone has made me feel welcome and that's something that I appreciate compared to the way I was treated in Argentina."

Donnet is from the dairy town of Esperanza (population 36,000) in Santa Fe province, northwest of Buenos Aires. As a kid, he starred for a local club, Juventud. His father played for -- and later was the president of -- another regional team.

Donnet began his pro career with Union de Santa Fe before joining Venezia in Italy. One year later, he was back in Argentina with Boca Juniors.

His grandest moment came in December 2003, when he scored from eight yards in the first half to tie AC Milan in the Toyota Cup final in Yokohama, Japan -- a match featuring the club champions of Europe and South America. In the ensuing penalty kick tiebreaker, Donnet scored in the third round to put Boca ahead for good and help earn the club's third intercontinental title.

His ascent was halted six months later when an ankle and foot injury sidelined him, and subsequent leg ailments made him an afterthought on Boca's roster. He languished on the reserve squad before Boca suggested him to Kasper a year ago. Negotiations stalled early this year, but Donnet purchased the final year of his contract to help facilitate the deal.

"The South American player is creative, likes to play with the ball, good soccer," he said. "I hope I can bring that kind of flair to the team, but at the same time, I hope that I can learn other characteristics of the American player that I may not have. Hopefully I can put that into one total package and contribute to the team."

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