Many MLS clubs have been making moves for weeks now. Today, D.C. United got in on the fun, signing 20 year old Rafael Teixeira de Souza - you can call him Rafael, or "Gladiador" as is his fantastic nickname - from Brazilian first division side EC Bahia on a one-year loan. As this loan required a fee, Rafael will be a Young Designated Player (all player acquisitions that require a fee are supposed to be DPs per MLS rules). Neither the fee nor Rafael's actual salary were disclosed.
United GM Dave Kasper emphasized that this signing was made "with a view towards a permanent transfer," which basically means that if Rafael is a success, United will purchase his contract from EC Bahia. As with all MLS loans, the option to buy will have been agreed to already between the clubs.
Rafael comes to RFK Stadium with an impressive resume. "Gladiador" has played for the Brazilian under-20 national team as recently as the 2011 Pan-American Games, and has 6 career goals already for Bahia, who came in 15th in the Campeonato Brasileiro (Brazil's first division) and won the Campeonato Baiano (the Bahia state championship, because soccer is that popular in Brazil that this is a big deal). Players that far along in their career in a league as good as Brazil's very rarely come to MLS at 20 years old.
The details of the Designated Player side of this deal are as follows: MLS regulations hold that, because Rafael will turn 21 during the 2013 season, his DP cap hit will be $200,000. Given the added news today that Dwayne De Rosario will be a DP this season (United paid down his salary with allocation money last year to avoid having to pay MLS for a third DP slot), Rafael is currently the third such player on the roster.
How will we avoid paying for that slot in 2013? Even if Hamdi Salihi stays, clubs are allowed to add young DPs as their third such player without paying for the extra slot (a move designed to reward clubs for going out and finding younger star players). In other words, we're once again using the work-arounds afforded to us in the MLS rulebook to avoid wasting money.
That's the boring stuff. Let's move on and look at who we just brought in: United's decision-makers seemed very enthusiastic. GM Dave Kasper referred to Rafael as "a perfect fit" for the club, and Ben Olsen noted that Rafael will not struggle in terms of the athletic demands that often confound foreign players coming to MLS. Dramatically underlining his confidence in the player, Olsen said "We're not looking for any other number nines," meaning that in terms of all-out strikers, Rafael is the club's big move.
Kasper also noted that Rafael scores a wide variety of goals, while Olsen mentioned the fact that he's a determined, fearless kind of player who will not shy away from potential hits in pursuit of goals. Those who have hunted through YouTube looking for highlights will have probably noted that the 6', 179 lb. Rafael is pretty fast for a target man. Yes, highlight videos on YouTube should be taken with a boulder of salt, but speed is one of the few things you can actually trust from such things. People who wanted some more pace up front should be happy, at the very least.
The highlight videos also indicate that Rafael is right-footed and has the confidence to take penalty kicks (which he appears to have converted going to either side of the keeper, as well as going both low and high). There are several goals where he judges a long ball more accurately than the opposing defense, then outruns or outworks defenders to the ball to convert. While the long ball game is not what United wants to play, it's good to have that option available to mix in with the prettier stuff. It also points to a player who works hard and can make things happen on his own, rather than being utterly reliant on good service to produce.
That's the good news. Obviously there is the concern that United is entering the season looking at starting either Lionard Pajoy or a 20 year old who has never played in MLS at striker. While Kasper has said that Rafael is "very mature for his age," 20 years old is 20 years old. It is telling that in the same Q&A, Kasper also says that Rafael will not be under pressure to score goals instantly - a la Salihi - and instead is expected to hit his stride sometime in the summer. This most likely means that card-carrying Pajaters will spend at least the early weeks Pajating as hard as they can, regardless of whether it's justified or not.
Mitigating concerns about United trusting the goal-shy Pajoy and a youngster to produce goals is the fact that this DC team is built to find goals from players other than the traditional #9. Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon combined for over 20 goals if you count the playoffs, and De Ro was on pace for at least 10 goals before getting injured. Rafael and Pajoy don't actually have to compete with Chris Wondolowski and Robbie Keane for the Golden Boot for us to be a very good team.
Now, is "very good team" good enough to win trophies? That remains to be seen. I'd still like to see more of a goal threat from central midfield as well as one more wide midfielder able to at least match Lewis Neal's contributions. If we address those problems, I'd list us as a contender (particularly if Andy Najar sticks around). Our young starters are going to continue to improve, and since our lineup is mostly full of guys in their early-to-mid 20s, we're talking about a team full of first-choice players that haven't peaked yet.