On June 25, Ricardo Leite and Jose "Kiki" Domingues-Ruiz were zipping through the uncommonly quiet streets of Sao Paolo, Brazil, on their way to Guarulhos International Airport.
It was a sad time in Brazil. A day earlier, the powerful national soccer team was upset by Argentina in the second round of the World Cup in Italy. But while the rest of the soccer-crazed nation mourned, Leite, now a freshman goalkeeper at George Mason University, and Domingues-Ruiz were about to embark on their own soccer adventure.
They were off to New York. They didn't know where they were going to stay or where their journey would lead. "We just went," Leite said. "I took a chance. I knew I could make it."
They checked into a cheap hotel, unpacked their bags and went searching for Columbia University, where, they were told by friends back home, they would find an opportunity.
One day, as the two were playing with a ball on the campus grounds, they struck up a conversation with Greg Franzke of the New York state select team.
Leite told him he was looking for a place to attend college and play soccer. Franzke told him that his college team, George Mason, was looking for a goalie. Domingues-Ruiz had already made contact with Florida International in Miami, but Leite was interested.
Franzke called Patriots Coach Gordon Bradley, who desperately was searching for someone to replace four-year starter Martin Dunphy. Two other George Mason players from New York, Kevin Anderson and Irad Young, met Leite and then told Bradley about the Brazilian.
Curious, Bradley contacted Columbia Coach Dieter Ficken, who had talked to Leite and saw him working out on campus. Ficken already had two goalies, so he recommended him to the George Mason coach.
So just when Bradley thought his traditionally solid defense might be unstable on the goal line, along came Leite, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound blessing, who had been a water polo star back home.
Leite has started all 22 games for George Mason this season, accumulating 10 shutouts and a 0.53 goals-against average. Delete a 4-0 loss to top-ranked Evansville and the average drops to 0.37, which would rank him second nationally.
The 15th-ranked Patriots (13-5-4) will play at No. 6 St. Louis (17-4-2) Sunday in an NCAA first-round tournament match.
The Patriots' success also can be attributed to their team defense, anchored by senior Ian Carter, which yielded seven shots per game. Leite has needed to make only 58 saves.
Still, it's been a remarkable season for someone whose only visits to this country came on vacations to Miami and Disney World. He has adjusted well to the different culture and his English has steadily improved. He's looking forward to seeing snow for the first time. Most importantly, he says, he's getting an education -- as a business major -- and the opportunity to play competitively.
In Brazil, where Pele, a national soccer hero, has indicated he will run for president in 1994, the sport takes precedence over everyday life. "Soccer in Brazil is to forget about our problems," Leite said. "When the national team won some games, everybody is happy. But they cannot forget about their problems."
That's why Leite went searching for something beyond the game because, he said, "In Brazil, you have to submit to a lot of pressure. It's very difficult. You have to grow up playing soccer. Forget school, forget everything. You are a soccer player."
As much as he would like someday to sign a professional contract in South America or Europe, Leite understands the consequences of a young player not fulfilling his dreams.
"I have to be ready if I don't make it because you never know," he said. "I wanted more. I love soccer, but I don't want to take a chance if I don't make it. I need something to support me."
Said Bradley: "What I'm surprised about more than the norm is the way he's adjusted. Generally, you don't look to get too much from a freshman. Here you have a freshman from Brazil who doesn't know much about the environment. Not only has he adjusted, he's everyone's friend."