United's Fabian Espindola began his career at prestigious Boca Juniors in Argentina. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

If Rosier Espindola had not auctioned a prized piglet in rural Argentina 15 years ago, who knows what would have become of his soccer-happy son.

Fabian Espindola was 14, living with his parents and young sister in Merlo, an offbeat destination of 11,000 residents at the foot of the Sierras de Comechingones in north-central Argentina. Waterfalls and natural pools drew tourists and locals alike. “We would swim there when we were kids,” D.C. United’s forward recalled this week, “and I would still do it now.”

Soccer in the dry pampas was played on dirt in common shoes. Like most boys, Fabian dreamed of becoming the next Diego Maradona, the next Gabriel Batistuta. Cities, however, are the sport’s incubator. The competition level in Espindola’s San Luis province paled in comparison, and the chance of discovery by a big club was small.

Boca Juniors, titans of Argentine soccer and Espindola family favorites, did find Fabian on a scouting tour. They invited him to join hundreds of others for a tryout in Buenos Aires, a 530-mile journey. To pay for bus tickets and cleats, Fabian raised money by performing odd jobs and lawn work.

His father, who at the time tended livestock, contributed to his son’s fund by selling a small hog.

“Living in my town, it’s tough for a young player,” Fabian said. “You don’t have too many influences and contacts to go to an elite club. I was lucky, very lucky.”

And so began a journey that carried Espindola from an Argentine outpost to Boca Juniors, one of global soccer’s most revered clubs. He then moved to another team in his homeland and proceeded to Ecuador, Salt Lake City, Venezuela, Utah again, New York and Washington.

Acquired by United in MLS’s re-entry draft in December, Espindola, 28, is playing an influential role in United’s effort to rebound from a three-victory season in 2013. He has scored twice in six matches and injected an unpredictable and menacing quality.

Coach Ben Olsen has granted him the freedom to float in the attack, improvise and make runs from varying positions.

“He has got a wonderful arrogance about him with the ball,” Olsen said. “He doesn’t care when or where or how. He wants to make plays. Sometimes he does it too much. But when his balance is on, making plays and helping us in possession, there aren’t many better in this league.”

Well before arriving in this league, Espindola reached the pinnacle of Argentina’s domestic game, the Primera Division. It was a brief tenure — six league matches in 2005. To get to that point, he lived for several years in Boca Juniors’ dormitories near the holy stadium, La Bombonera. While rising through the youth system, he scrimmaged against first-teamers such as Juan Roman Riquelme, Carlos Tevez and Martin Palermo.

“We would always lose 4- or 5-0,” he said. “The training was very serious. They never wanted to lose to us.”

Like most prospects at elite clubs, Espindola inevitably needed to set a new course. He joined Talleres de Cordoba in Argentina’s second division, then Aucas and Deportivo Quito in Ecuador.

In August 2007, despite having never visited the United States, he signed with Real Salt Lake. The Wasatch Range “reminded me of home,” he said.

The 2008 MLS season was marked by embarrassment. Celebrating a goal against Los Angeles with his customary backflip, he sprained an ankle and missed the last seven regular season matches. To add insult to injury, the goal had been annulled by an offside flag.

“When I was learning to do the flip, I landed on my shoulder, on my head, everything. And nothing ever happened,” he said. “The ankle, that was it. No more flips.”

RSL declined to pick up the pricey option on his contract. Espindola joined Venezuela’s Deportivo Anzoategui, but with the club failing to make payroll, he rejoined RSL and won the 2009 league trophy. Between 2010 and ’12, he posted 25 goals and 12 assists.

Traded to New York before the 2013 season, Espindola played one year with the Red Bulls, who declined to exercise his contract option. United claimed his rights.

“Everybody knows it was a tough beginning” when United opened the season with two losses, he said. “But whenever I decide to go somewhere, I believe in the team. D.C. brought in new players and started an almost a new team. I didn’t care about what happened last year. We started something new.”

United, 2-2-2 entering Saturday’s home match against league-best FC Dallas (5-1-1), gained not only a goal scorer to pair with U.S. national team veteran Eddie Johnson, but a tempestuous character. Both traits were on display last weekend at Columbus: Espindola scored in the 31st minute on a wicked blast and, during a second-half stoppage, was involved in a scuffle that spilled into the Crew net.

“He plays angry,” said United captain Bobby Boswell, in his second tenure in Washington after six seasons in Houston. “When I played against him, he genuinely seemed like he didn’t like me even though he didn’t know a thing about me. He wants to win, and he’ll run through you if he has to.”

Olsen welcomes Espindola’s passion and drive, the same ingredients that fueled him as a player.

“He plays with fire in his belly,” Olsen said. “We’ve seen it at times spill over, but I love it. I never liked playing against him. I never liked coaching against him. He is a great guy, a good teammate.”