MONTREAL — Jesse Marsch was already hard at work.
Having recently accepted his first head coaching job, the new Montreal Impact boss was in a Denmark coffeehouse with eventual signing Patrice Bernier when he took a glance at a list of 15 Swiss-based first-division players handed to him by agent Loïc Favre, son of Borussia Mönchengladbach manager Lucien Favre.
Once Marsch made his way to Switzerland, the plan had been to watch one of those players training with UEFA Champions League regulars FC Basel. The elements, however, did not cooperate and the session was called off. Favre suggested Marsch take in a practice of second-division side FC Wohlen in Zürich, where a “pretty good Brazilian guy” was playing.
“The Brazilian player he took me to watch was Alex, who’s now with Chicago,” Marsch recalled. “So I’m watching training, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, he’s OK, but who’s this other little guy?’ And he goes, ‘Oh, that’s another Brazilian. His name is Felipe. ... But I think he’s too small for MLS.’”
GOAL: Felipe's spectacular scissors kick
Marsch stopped listening at “Felipe” and kept watching. He was blown away by the young player with tremendous skill and a knack for creating chances, who he later discovered was playing more like a defensive midfielder for Wohlen. In that training session, however, Felipe was moved up to a No. 10 position, from where he and his teammates proceeded to “kill the other team,” as Marsch puts it.
Contacts with the Montreal camp quickly made Felipe realize that a move to MLS might be beneficial to his career. The Brazilian’s potential was evident; that he could cut it right away in MLS, less so.
“The thing that you’re not always able to figure out about guys is what their character is like, what kind of competitors they are,” Marsch said. “But from day one, you could see that was one of Felipe’s strongest qualities.”
On the field, the Brazilian feels he plays strong despite his diminutive stature. That toughness has developed over time since he left his home at the tender age of 10 for his first opportunity at a Brazilian soccer club. Five years later, he would make the transatlantic switch to Italian club Padova, where he soon got hold of an Italian passport – “ancestors from four, five, six generations ago,” he roughly estimates – to free up a foreigner slot in the squad, before an eventual move to Switzerland.
“When you leave your home and family early, you need to be mature really fast,” Felipe said. “Sometimes, certain situations require you to be really strong. You’re young, but you need to figure out ways to solve problems on your own. You need maturity, and that helps a lot because I changed countries and cultures in Italy and in the German and Italian parts of Switzerland.
"So you need to resolve situations without your family, your father. … It changes everything.”
WATCH: Felipe scores first at Stade Saputo
Felipe Campanholi Martins nevertheless remains a Brazilian through and through. His family still lives in their pátria amada (beloved homeland), where they watch every game “but don’t vote for my goals,” he chuckles, referring to his recent AT&T Goal of the Week triumph.
The rich array of skills Felipe picked up in the land of jôgo bonito have since been supplemented and shaped by his life experiences that now stretch across three different continents. And it reflects not only on the field, where he's an immovable starter with four goals and 10 assists, but also off it.
At the beginning of the season this writer had to rely on limited Portuguese skills to chat with Felipe. But the midfielder now speaks good English and is, like a number of his Impact teammates, working on his French.
Less than a season into his three-year MLS contract, European clubs have already expressed their interest into bringing Felipe back to Europe. But the player shrugs and looks down to the crest on his heart. There, it says “Montreal,” a place where he found good people, “brothers and best friends” like Italian veterans Marco Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta, and a club he likens to the family he’s been away from for six years.
“I really feel happy, here in Montreal,” Felipe says. “You need to play where you feel good, where you are happy. Here, I found a very good situation and nice people, from the president [Joey Saputo] to Aldo [Ricciuti, the first-team equipment manager].
“For now, I think that MLS will be among the best five leagues in the world, so I want to be a part of this history. I want to stay here. And here, I can make my own history, too.”