Maicon Santos celebrates after scoring against FC Dallas at RFK on March 30. Santos has played in the far reaches of the world, including Israel and Libya. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

A soccer life is like no other in professional sports. Playing baseball might take an athlete to Japan, hockey to Scandinavia, basketball to Europe. Football’s borders close in Canada.

To appreciate the distances a soccer player will go to construct a career, check Maicon Santos’s passport.

D.C. United’s leading scorer is from Paracambi, Brazil, a town of 36,000 an hour’s drive northwest of Rio de Janeiro. Seven years ago, he signed his first contract to play in the country’s third division.

From there, Santos moved to the Tunisian league and lived in the Mediterranean city of Sousse, which dates back 32 centuries. A year later, he swung around the coast and landed in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city.

“It was different, unique, but it wasn’t bad,” he said of Libya’s unheralded league. “I had a good experience. You saw [references to Moammar Ghaddafi] in the city but not much at the games.”

Four years later, Benghazi would become the rebel capital in the successful battle to overthrow the Libyan leader.

Next stop for Santos: Israel, where he played for a team based on the Lebanese border and another supported by Arab Israelis.

His travels allowed him to learn Hebrew and French, in addition to Portuguese and English.

“Brazilian [soccer players] are everywhere,” he laughed. He’s right: The country exports players to more leagues around the world than any other nation. Marcelo Saragosa , a United teammate and compatriot, performed in Azerbaijan last year.

Santos arrived in MLS in the middle of the 2009 season, but his travels weren’t finished: California-based Chivas USA to Toronto FC to FC Dallas in a two-year stretch. Last winter, after he and the Texas organization failed to reach a contract agreement, United claimed him.

“He’s never been on the greatest teams” in MLS, United Coach Ben Olsen said. “I always thought, particularly when he played us, he was a real handful. He was an up-and-down player. His consistency bothered some people.

“When he came here, I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to move you again. I want you to make this your home.’ ”

Through seven matches, Washington has been home sweet home. With four goals, Santos entered the weekend tied for fourth in MLS. The New York Red Bulls, United’s opponent Sunday at RFK Stadium, feature the league’s most prolific tandem, Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper (seven apiece).

Santos began the season as United’s third option at forward, but after a 10-minute stint in the opener against Sporting Kansas City, he started the next five matches and scored three times. Although Olsen rested him Wednesday against the Montreal Impact, Santos entered in the second half and scored the equalizer from 30 yards in the 1-1 draw — the perfect finish to his 28th birthday.

“The confidence is there,” he said. “I’ve found a good team, a good group of guys.”

At 6 feet 1, Santos offers a physical dimension to United’s frontline. He also has the strength to hold the ball and ward off defenders, allowing teammates to play off of him.

“He has some great qualities, and we’re seeing all of those qualities right now. I could only see it getting better from here,” said United midfielder-forward Dwayne De Rosario, Santos’s teammate in Toronto in 2010-11.

The D.C. coaching staff picked De Rosario’s brain during the offseason before deciding to pursue Santos.

“He’s working hard for his goals,” added De Rosario, who, with Santos’s rise, hasn’t had to carry the scoring burden as he did late last season. “A lot of goals aren’t given; a lot of the goals are him moving in the right direction and working harder than his opponent. We’re all proud of him.”

United notes: Defender Emiliano Dudar, who missed two matches with a hamstring strain, was upgraded to probable. Center back Dejan Jakovic (sprained ankle) remains out. . . . The Red Bulls are missing five regulars: midfielder Rafael Marquez (suspension), forward Juan Agudelo, midfielder Teemu Tainio and defender Roy Miller with knee injuries, and defender Wilman Conde (groin).