Diminutive in stature but an irrepressible presence on the field, midfielder Thiago da Rosa (also known as Thiago Gaucho) has been a welcome addition to the Chicago Fire lineup this season.
Since he was put into the club's starting lineup by Fire coach Dave Sarachan three weeks ago, Chicago hasn't lost. In his first game in an attacking midfield role, the Fire came back to claim a draw with D.C. United, and now they've posted back-to-back wins against the San Jose Earthquakes and MetroStars.
The 23-year-old midfielder's game is prototypically Brazilian. He is elusive, quick, and has excellent dribbling skills. His style, in many respects, resembles that of Ronaldinho - his favorite player.
"He has had a very positive impact in the middle of the field. He offers us something different from our other midfielders - another dimension," said Fire head coach Dave Sarachan.
The Fire brought Thiago to Chicago because he impressed them with his ball skills, passing, and his ability to breakdown defenses. But Sarachan noted that while Thiago is an important offensive force for the Fire, "one thing that goes unnoticed is his ability to defend."
Thiago learned his craft on the soccer fields of Porto Alegre -- the southern Brazilian city situated to the south of São Paulo, not far from the Uruguayan border. He began playing organized soccer at the age of seven, in school, and entered the youth ranks of Sports Club Internacional at the age of 10. He made his professional debut for the club in 2003, but to get more playing time he moved to Ginasio Pinhalense de Esportes Atleticos -- a club located in Brazil's interior.
Thiago has adapted to the Fire and life in the United States, though it has not always been easy. He continues to struggle with English which, at times, has made meshing with his teammates difficult.
"At first," he said in Portuguese, "it was difficult to reach an understanding on the field. When they would say something to me I would not understand - causing some confusion. Now that we have played together for a while, they know how I play and I have adjusted to them."
That understanding -- more unspoken than verbal -- has already had positive results. Thiago raced to get on the end of a low cross from rookie Chad Barrett to give the Fire a stoppage-time victory against San Jose two weeks ago.
"He's become a very good friend of mine," Thiago said. "We talked about the game before kickoff. It's a little difficult because we don't speak the same language, but we understand each other pretty well."
While Thiago is struggling with English, his Spanish has markedly improved since his arrival in Chicago. Due to his Spanish-speaking teammates (he shares an apartment with Honduran international Samuel Caballero), he has had ample opportunity to practice his Spanish. In fact, when he calls home, his family complains that too much Spanish is creeping into his Portuguese.
Being so far from Porto Alegre, Thiago dearly misses his family and their daily support. Unhappily, Thiago hardly ever has the opportunity to speak Portuguese since there is not much of a Brazilian community in Chicago.
Since he is out of touch with Brazilian culture, he has at times felt isolated. His girlfriend of five years was to join him in the USA, but her first visa application was, inexplicably to Thiago, denied. With the help of the Fire, she has reapplied and should be receiving her visa shortly.
One of Thiago's goals is to add a Brazilian flare to the Fire's playing style.
"I want us to play happy soccer," he said with a broad and disarming smile. "Americans are too reserved, not as outgoing as Brazilians. The soccer style of Americans is also reserved. They need to be happier -- to enjoy it more."
Nathan Nebbe is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.