CHESTER, Pa. – Through two games, Ilsinho has already emerged as a key cog in the Philadelphia Union attack, starting twice and playing an important role in Philly’s surprising 2-1 win over Columbus this past weekend.
But there’s still a whole other level the Brazilian midfielder hasn’t come close to reaching.
“He’s a special player,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said after Tuesday’s training session. “We need him on the ball more – as much as we possibly can. … The games haven’t shown yet how good he is.”
As is often the case with first-year foreign players, there have been some difficulties adapting to a new country and a new league for Ilsinho, who spent much of the past decade with Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk.
But Curtin noted that the 30-year-old Brazilian, who has two young kids, is the “kind of guy who can roll with anything.”
And even as he’s looked for a place to live and has taken English classes, he’s brought enthusiasm and admiration to his new team, gushing to his coach recently that the team’s new practice facility looks like it belongs at a club like Real Madrid.
For Ilsinho, being a part of a league that continues to make upgrades like those, along with the parity, is one of the big reasons why he decided to come to MLS in the first place.
“I always followed the league no matter where I was playing,” Ilsinho told MLSsoccer.com through a translator. “I saw the league was growing, and it’s a very exciting format playoff-wise. And I wanted to be a part of it.
“In my past leagues, there’s only been two favorites that are probably going to win it. Over here, anybody can win any week. It’s a very exciting league. That’s what I’ve noticed so far.”
It’s been an extra benefit for Ilsinho that many of his new teammates are fellow Brazilians, a contingent that includes Fabinho, Anderson and Leo Fernandes, the latter of whom also serves as his unofficial translator.
“I get to practice my Portuguese again,” Fernandes said with a laugh. “It’s always good to be around Brazilians.”
Fernandes actually only lived in Brazil for the first few years of his life before moving with his family to New York. But the 24-year-old still knew all about Ilsinho, who he said is very well-known in their native Brazil.
That made it even more special for him to room with Ilsinho during the preseason and, now, to start alongside him in the Union attack.
“He was a great player to watch,” Fernandes said. “So much skill, he could humiliate a defender any time on the field. Just to watch him do what he does on the ball, it’s a great thing.”
Fernandes is excited to work on a 1-2 punch with Ilsinho in the midfield but knows they both need time to develop more chemistry.
Ilsinho is also still working to get all of his fitness back, having already dropped eight pounds since the start of the preseason.
Once he does that, his coaches and teammates believe he can be a dominant player in MLS. Ilsinho, though, simply wants to win games in a league in which he believes any team can become a winner.
“I want to help any way I can, whether it’s defending, attacking, anything,” the Brazilian said. “I see us improving and I think we’ll have a great season.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.