After a week of indoor fitness work with nary a ball in sight, D.C. United's players gratefully returned to the RFK Stadium auxiliary turf field for drills and small-sided games on Friday. But the biggest revelation of the afternoon -- by far -- took place in RFK's subterranean media room afterwards, when general manager Dave Kasper officially confirmed a development which had fueled a week's worth of rumors and reports about D.C. playmaker Marcelo Gallardo.
"We've reached an agreement with Marcelo to let him go back to Argentina and finish his career, basically releasing him from his obligations," said Kasper. "He is now free to sign and finish his career down south."
Thus ends Gallardo's star-crossed stint in Washington, one year and one day after he was unveiled as United's first-ever designated player amid great fanfare and enthusiasm. Despite his indisputable talent, the Argentinean World Cup veteran never really settled in with D.C. during an injury-riddled 2008 campaign and in many ways, his departure closes the door on a strange and lamentable 12 months for the Black-and-Red.
"Obviously, we know the difficulties we had last year -- we wanted him on the field more. But it's his desire to finish over there, and you can respect that. He's had a long history there," said United coach Tom Soehn. "I respect his decision. He is going to move on and we are going to move on."
Presently recuperating from his latest ailment, an adductor release surgery in December, "El Muneco" spent the offseason in his homeland and had been excused from United's early preseason workouts to date.
Kasper said the midfielder had briefly expressed some desire for a permanent return to Argentina last month. But those thoughts apparently kicked into high gear when the prospect of a return to River Plate, Gallardo's first and most beloved club, materialized in recent weeks.
"He was pretty up front about it," said Kasper. "We thought that he was coming back, but he had some last-minute thoughts. I am sure part of it is that he had a couple clubs interested in him, and at the end of the day, we all know where he started and where he wanted to finish up. I think that became much more of a possibility over the past few days."
Gallardo was eager to make his mark in Major League Soccer when he arrived from French side Paris Saint-Germain last winter, but a season of struggle in his new country tested him mightily and in the end, the opportunity to return to his roots was too good to pass up. Having made his name with River -- he made his debut as a 17-year-old in 1993 and would soon help Los Millonarios win four Argentinean league titles and a Copa Libertadores triumph -- he remains a cult hero for many fans of the Buenos Aires giants and his affection for the club lingered throughout his time abroad.
"I think when he got back down there and did his rehab, it kind of hit him," said Kasper. "He had been away, in France and then here."
Gallardo's vision and class illuminated MLS during United's 2008 midsummer hot streak, but it proved only a brief flash as sports hernia and knee troubles sidelined him for the vast majority of the season's second half. Noting his absence this preseason, his former D.C. teammates have already begun to move on.
"We haven't even brought it up," said midfielder Santino Quaranta of Gallardo. "Last year it was a problem all year for us, and you never knew what was going to happen next and it was really like a soap opera, man. I know he's a great guy, I like him on a personal level, but when you're not here -- this brings a team together, the week that we just had. You go through the blood, the sweat and the tears."
Gallardo's departure leaves a significant gap in the United midfield and while 2008 MLS squads are not finalized until April, the impending closure of the current international transfer window (which ends at midnight on Saturday night) leaves little time for the club to arrange a move for a player of his caliber and resume. But Kasper and Soehn expressed confidence in the group they've already gathered, and seem content to learn more about the squad on their upcoming preseason travels before making any more major moves.
"It's a bit of a challenge. You really have to look for the right situation, players who can basically walk away from their club," said Kasper of securing a foreign playmaker in the weeks ahead. "It is an ongoing process. You look to make your team better in each transfer window, and that could extend on into the summer."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.