Raphael Augusto’s brief history with D.C. United includes Brazil’s economy, an eye patch, a teammate’s hamstring, a failed clearance and a controversial tackle.
The last item deserves the first explanation: Five minutes into his Major League Soccer debut last weekend, Augusto was taken down late in the first half of United’s 3-1 loss at Houston in the first leg of the Eastern Conference finals. A red card was warranted but not given.
“Absurd,” Augusto said Friday through an interpreter. United was ahead at the time and, had Houston’s Andre Hainault been ejected, D.C. would’ve enjoyed a man advantage. Instead, the teams remained at even strength and the Dynamo wore down the visitors in the second half.
Augusto was partly to blame for United’s unraveling. With Houston ahead 2-1, he didn’t clear a corner kick and allowed Kofi Sarkodie to score a goal that could prove decisive in the two-game, total-goals series.
In all, it was an eventful introduction for the 21-year-old midfielder, who might be called upon again Sunday afternoon when United and the Dynamo tangle in the finale at RFK Stadium.
“It’s not an easy situation to go into: away at Houston for your first game and in a playoff match,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “Even for his first game, he did pretty well for us.”
Augusto was thrust into action because of injuries. Already without star attacker Dwayne De Rosario, United lost leading scorer Chris Pontius early in the match with a strained groin and Marcelo Saragosa, a Brazilian midfielder, just before halftime with a hamstring problem.
“I wanted to play, but I understand how the team works, what the coach wants, and I had to be patient until it happened,” he said of his long-awaited opportunity in the 40th minute. “You carry on. You make sure you are ready.”
United acquired Augusto in late July on loan from Fluminense, a fabled Brazilian club. The visa process usually takes a few weeks, but after waiting for an appointment with the U.S. consulate in Rio de Janeiro, Augusto acquired an eye infection. He arrived at the office wearing an eye patch and was told to come back when he was healthy.
According to General Manager Dave Kasper, players started asking, “Who is this Raphael guy and is he actually coming?”
By the time he arrived in late August, United was approaching the final stage of the regular season. The club wanted to see him in a reserve league match at Montreal but didn’t have time to process a separate visa for travel to and from Canada. In those initial days, he also suffered from an illness and minor injuries.
“Every time we thought about using him,” Kasper said, “he wasn’t available.”
And when he was available, “it was never the right time,” Olsen said. “We were intrigued by him and we didn’t want to have him play his first game in the playoffs.”
Although he has made just a lone appearance, Augusto has impressed United in training sessions with his strength and comfort with the ball. He is still in the learning process, Olsen said, but the club is eager to retain him for next season. Talks are underway and Kasper is optimistic Fluminense will agree to extend the loan.
Augusto’s availability to MLS is the result of Brazilian economics. With the country enjoying unprecedented prosperity, soccer clubs are attracting more sponsors and, hence, are in position to strengthen their rosters with proven players.
For example, Dutch midfielder Clarence Seedorf left AC Milan after 10 years to sign with Botafogo and Diego Forlan, Uruguay’s World Cup star, moved from Inter Milan to Internacional.
Consequently, prospects like Augusto are no longer afforded as many first-team opportunities.
Augusto was playing on loan in Brazil’s second tier when United took interest.
“We were thinking, if he can get on the field this year, it’s a bonus,” Kasper said. “We’re doing this in thinking about next year.”
Augusto, the son of a taxi driver and nurse from Rio’s blue-collar neighborhood of Bairro Cascadura, has had to adapt to a different culture, language and climate in a country he had never before visited.
Brazilian teammates Saragosa and Maicon Santos, as well as physical therapist Gabriel Manoel, have helped ease the transition.
“It’s been cool,” Augusto said. “Initially, it was a little tough to adapt, not only to the culture and weather but to the style of play. It’s gotten a lot better with the guys. I do like it here. I hope I can stay.”