Curt Onalfo has taken a long journey to become D.C. United's coach

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 3, 2010

The miniature leather soccer ball is aged and misshapen but still a radiant reminder of Curt Onalfo's roots in the sport. Now that he has resettled in Washington, Onalfo has found a resting spot for it on his desk inside D.C. United's coaching bunker in the basement of crusty RFK Stadium.

The brown ball was placed in his crib shortly after he was born on Nov. 19, 1969 -- the same day that Pele, the Brazilian icon, scored "O Milesimo," his 1,000th professional goal. At the time, his parents were living in Sao Paulo, where Curt's father, Jim, was on executive assignment for General Foods overseeing an ice cream company.

Proclaiming it an omen, friends presented the ball to Curt's mother, Linda.

"Flowers and that little ball," she said, "those were our gifts."

Since the beginning, Curt Onalfo has been intrinsically tied to soccer. After living in Brazil and Australia, he flourished in the Connecticut youth club his father helped create and was a cog in the University of Virginia's emerging dynasty. He played in the Under-20 World Cup, the Olympics and the first MLS Cup.

While competing for a second-division club on Mexico's Gulf Coast, he met his wife, Sandra. Their children, Christian and Gabriela (now 12 and 8), are nicknamed Ronalfo and Ronaldinha, after the Brazilian star Ronaldinho.

And when Onalfo confronted his most formidable opponent, Hodgkin's lymphoma, he used soccer as a source of motivation to resume his playing career and ultimately climb the coaching ladder from an MLS assistant to the U.S. World Cup staff and then to top positions with the Kansas City Wizards and United.

"There was a point where I contemplated going to chiropractic school," he said. "I had done a lot in soccer and maybe it was time to move on.

"But once I got sick, I told myself that I was going to get healthy and was going to be involved with soccer for a long time -- that became crystal clear."

Expect 'growing pains'

Onalfo guided the Wizards to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons before being fired last summer. United hired him this winter to revive a once-revered club that has been stuck in mediocrity for two years and has advanced to the MLS Cup just once in 10 seasons. His debut last weekend did not go well, a 4-0 loss at Kansas City. United will play its home opener Saturday night against the New England Revolution.

With several new players to integrate, Onalfo has taken a slow-growth philosophy.

"There are going to be growing pains," said Onalfo, a reserve defender for United in 1998 and 1999 before becoming an assistant coach for the club and helping launch United's youth program. "It's going to take patience along the way, we'll have our ups and downs, but we will get there."

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