D.C. United vs. Houston Dynamo: Marcelo Saragosa plays with heavy heart

April 28, 2012

When she called back, her tone changed. Gilson Saragosa, a retired dentist, had died. He was just 60.

After a sleepless and tearful night, Saragosa made plans to fly home. It was his second trip in recent weeks to Brazil after visiting in late March when his father was stricken while driving. When the prognosis improved, he rejoined United in time for the match against the New England Revolution on April 14.

Coach Ben Olsen had planned to start him in defensive midfield. Instead, Saragosa had to leave again.

After another 10 days away, Saragosa returned to Washington this Wednesday. He is under consideration for the 18-man active roster Saturday night when United (3-2-3) hosts the Houston Dynamo (2-1-2) at RFK Stadium.

“I am very sad, but I need to continue my life and work hard for my father,” he said after Friday’s training session at RFK Stadium. “He was always thinking about me; he gave everything for me to be where I am.”

The death cast a pall over his family, which includes four siblings, and United’s tight-knit group, as well.

“Everybody knows he has been through a lot,” Olsen said. “We’re a family. We all struggle when one of our own has a loss like that, but he seems in good spirits and ready to get back to his job.”

Saragosa, 30, has fit in well in his first season with United, his fourth MLS club since 2004. After winning the 2005 championship in the second of three seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy, he moved to FC Dallas and then Chivas USA. Last year, he competed for two clubs in Azerbaijan.

United acquired him to provide depth behind Perry Kitchen, a 2011 MLS rookie of the year finalist who played primarily on the backline a year ago. While Kitchen served U.S. under-23 national team duty, Saragosa played 90 minutes in away matches against the Galaxy and Vancouver Whitecaps.

Because of his father’s situation, Saragosa hasn’t played in five weeks — a disruptive absence for a field player requiring pace and endurance.

“I trained in Brazil — just fitness, not with the ball,” he said. “I believe in one or two weeks I will be ready to help my team, help my brothers. But if [Olsen] wants me [Saturday], I will be there.”

Before entering the military and pursuing dentistry, Gilson Saragosa was an attacking midfielder for a club in Campo Grande, a city of 750,000 in Brazil’s Center-West Region. His modest career was cut short by family obligations — “with five babies, no more soccer,” Saragosa said, smiling.

Marcelo’s career took shape in the youth system of Sao Paulo, one of Brazilian soccer’s most decorated clubs. It was there he bonded with a tall prospect of the same age: Kaka, a future superstar with AC Milan, Real Madrid and Brazil’s national team. Each has served as the best man in one another’s wedding.

Saragosa regards Kaka’s father and mother as his second set of parents. When Saragosa’s father fell ill, Kaka’s mother called him regularly to offer support.

“Life continues now. I have my family to take care of and my beautiful job,” he said. “It was a hard time, but I need to work again.”

United notes: Since losing the first two matches, United is 3-0-3 for 12 points — its longest unbeaten run since early in 2009 and most points since a 5-0-1 stretch (16 points) in ’08. . . . The Dynamo is playing the sixth of seven consecutive away matches to start the season. A new stadium in downtown Houston will open May 12, with United as the visitor. . . . In the past five meetings with the Dynamo, United has conceded 15 goals for four defeats and a draw.

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