0623 TAXI FEATURE

WASHINGTON – Though his comprehension is decent and rapidly improving, Taxiarchis Fountas’ English was limited when he joined D.C. United in April. Conversely, his new teammate Brad Smith’s Greek skills were, and mostly still are, non-existent.

That hasn’t stopped the two locker-room neighbors from striking up a close kinship – fueled by similarly mischievous senses of humor and a passion for “Clash of Clans,” the video game Fountas tried out at Smith’s recommendation, and soon became obsessed with.

“We're really good friends, from the very beginning,” the Greece international explained to MLSsoccer.com via a translator, flashing one of his signature grins. “You don't need to speak the same language to be friends. It's just something that, you can see the other person with the eyes, you can understand them a little better.

“The communication is a little difficult, but he's one of my good friends. I like to poke fun and annoy him,” he added about Smith. “Especially when he's tired, and he doesn't want to be bothered. That's when I like to do it the most. I do it, of course, to everyone on the team. I’m kind of a little jokester, and everyone calls me a little crazy and that stuff, but I like to poke fun. Maybe one day all of them will just gang up on me and turn it around on me, but who knows?”

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Intangible qualities

Perhaps full linguistic fluency is overrated. With a fun-loving personality like that – and five goals and three assists in his first eight MLS matches – “Taxi” has with incredible speed burrowed his way into the hearts of United teammates and fans since signing a Designated Player contract in March. A creative spark with the physical capacity to run and press at the rates required in D.C.’s uptempo game model, he’s been a breath of fresh air during a difficult campaign.

“I think it's the whole package,” said Smith of the striker, “being confident in himself, but not arrogant, you know what I mean? He’s confident, he’s out there – he’s lively, he’s loud once he got comfortable, and I think that translates to the pitch. He knows that we like him, so he can go out and just be himself, and he’s confident in his abilities, and he’s a great player.”

The Australian wingback noted that such cultural complications can vex even world-class players, recalling how Roberto Firmino first grappled with a learning curve when they were teammates at Liverpool. D.C.’s interim head coach Chad Ashton has experienced plenty of locker-room dynamics across his four decades in the game, and was impressed with the interpersonal skills Fountas used to connect upon arrival: “He uses those to incorporate himself with the group. He gets to everybody, he makes the rounds, he gets it.”

General manager Lucy Rushton is a data specialist, one of MLS’s premier number-crunchers. Fountas is one of United’s first big-ticket acquisitions under the analytics-driven evaluation models she and data scientist Blake Parry crafted. Yet she readily admits that this particular type of intangible can still be a mystery.

“As soon as he walked in the door, it was evident,” she said of Fountas. “He had a persona about him, and a presence that you get from players with experience in Europe, too. So there's that side. But then the character side, in terms of just having a real personality and being bubbly and a joker and all of that kind of stuff, you hear about it, but you never know how it's going to transfer to your dressing room.”

Taxi Fountas nets sensational brace for DC United

Handling expectations

It’s just the kind of big character – to say nothing of attacking productivity – the Black-and-Red have craved since Wayne Rooney lit up the District with his quality and star power in 2018, only to return to England after just a season and a half as his family struggled to settle in the new surroundings.

Peruvian international and club-record signing Edison Flores fell well short of those expectations and has been transferred back to Mexico to join Atlas. Now Taxi is United’s sole DP, giving them two spots to potentially fill.

“You want a DP who thrives on that. And when you talk to these players about that – ‘we're bringing you here as a DP’ – you often see them [think] ‘yeah, OK, OK, I'm going to be the man.’ And that's what you want from your DP,” said Rushton. “Because ultimately, you bring them here to be the focal point of your team, of your club, of MLS, hopefully. And so they need to have an ability to carry that pressure and manage that pressure, but want that pressure.

“With Taxi, that was evident.”

On a three-year deal reportedly worth some $7 million in total compensation, he is unquestionably the centerpiece for the capital club, and has embraced all the responsibilities that entails.

“I liked everything about the contract. I left the economic part to my manager, but I do believe in myself and my abilities,” said Fountas, 26, in an in-depth one-on-one this week. “So I was really excited to be one of the Designated Players. I really like that they also believe in me as much as I believe in myself. And everything just kind of flows together really nicely with the team.

“The most important thing for me is to win and be successful and do that as a team. I want us all to do it together as a team – wherever I go,” he added. “With everyone's faith in me, I want to in turn repay that forward, being the best player that I can be for them and playing at my top level for them. By winning.”

Taxi Fountas DC celebration

American dream

D.C. need a hero. Having reached the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs just twice – both ending in disappointing first-round exits – since 2017, frustration is growing around Audi Field. A brief 2W-1L-0D upturn after former coach Hernan Losada’s sudden dismissal in April has given way to a six-game winless slump, and a slide to second-from-bottom in both the Eastern Conference and overall standings.

On Thursday morning D.C. were officially announced as hosts of the 2023 MLS All-Star Game. It marks the midsummer showcase’s return to Washington nearly two decades since RFK Stadium held the 2004 edition, the last to feature an East-West format. D.C. also hoisted the most recent of their four MLS Cup trophies that year, underlining their proud history, and the long shadow it casts.

Fountas knows the backstory and jumped at the chance to play his part.

“I knew that this was my place. This was what I wanted to do,” he said. “I like to score, I like to be successful. If I don't score, I'm super upset with myself. So it's very important for me to do that for the team. Now whether people think I'm famous or not, or the face of D.C. United, the important thing for me is the synergy among the team, and winning.”

He signed a pre-contract over the winter that would take him to the United States in the summer window (July 7), after he’d finished the final few months of his deal at Rapid Vienna. United sought to extricate him from the Austrian power early, however, eventually paying a reported $400,000 fee to do so. It took Fountas’ own insistence to push that transaction over the line.

“The team wouldn't let me leave,” he said. “Once D.C. United had made it clear that they wanted me and I had told my manager that I wanted to go to D.C., Rapid still had said no, they want me to stay until the summer to finish out the season.”

Fountas speaks with striking enthusiasm about leaving behind the life he, his wife Marina and their young son Taxi Jr. knew in Europe to pursue this North American adventure – “It was my dream to play for D.C. United, it was my dream to come to America,” he says.

Taxi Fountas DC United
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The force of his will was evident when Rapid’s leadership released an unusual statement of denunciation on his departure, with sporting director Zoran Barisic speaking of “a very stale aftertaste” and managing partner Christoph Peschek opining that “the behavior of Taxi Fountas was recently unworthy of a Rapid player.”

Take all that with a hefty grain of salt, says Taxi.

“They were basically spreading rumors in the media, saying that I was the one causing all the problems and not wanting to play with them,” he responded. “That I wasn't showing up to trainings, that I was calling out sick. And obviously that was not true, but I did want to leave. I was just trying to work something out with the team.

“Essentially, I don't care about their opinions. Everything that they were putting out was false. I had a desire to make myself better as a player. I just want to be happy; I’m here, I’m good.”

While Vienna will always be special to them as the birthplace of Taxi Jr., the family has settled smoothly in the quiet Northern Virginia suburb of Manassas and isn’t looking back.

“Marina loves everything about America, because it's easier for our son,” said Fountas. “It's a more free, carefree way of living here. He can go outside and play and there's a lot more freedoms for him, and it makes me happy that she's happy, that our son is happy.”

"I want everything"

The irony of him becoming a foundational piece for United is that he nearly joined their bitter rivals the New York Red Bulls a year ago. With his quickness, dynamism and capacity to thrive in multiple offensive roles, Taxi has long been on the radar of MLS teams and spent time at RBNY’s Austrian sibling club RB Salzburg earlier in his career, though he was unable to break into their first-team lineup and spent most of his four-year contract out on loan.

“It was a big coup for us,” said Rushton of Fountas’ signing. “He obviously had a lot of interest, because he was coming out of contract, so he had interest from Europe and other MLS teams. Thankfully for us he saw a good opportunity for his career in D.C. in terms of how he could come and progress himself, and be in an environment which is going to give him opportunities for success both individually and as a team.”

Significant tests lie ahead. While his opening weeks in MLS were a revelation, his productivity has cooled as United’s form dipped and opponents learned about the dangers he poses. Ashton, Rushton and president of soccer operations Dave Kasper are working towards at least one more big acquisition to spread the attacking load and help turn D.C.’s season around.

“He's used to being a player that the opposition are going to put extra attention to,” said Rushton. “We have the flexibility within our roster, and certainly what we're looking to do in the summer is going to probably help Taxi and help get more out of him, and get the best out of him.

“Ultimately I think we're going to have more fluidity in how we can play as a team, in our shape and formation as well. And you start adding more players around him as well, and they take people's attention and focus and it changes his role in the team, too.”

Fountas’ hunger for all that and more is palpable.

“I'm very happy to be here,” he said, that quick smile spreading across his face again. “I want everything.”