Faces of First Kick: Paulo Jr.
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Faces of First Kick: Paulo Jr.

Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales knew something was up. His Brazilian teammate Paulo Jr. loved to break out the cavadinha, but Morales hadn’t seen it all day.

The cavadinha is how Paulo Jr.’s fellow Brazilians refer to a chip of the goalkeeper. In this particular preseason match a little more than a month ago, Paulo Jr. had four one-on-one opportunities against the goalkeeper but never used the move for which his teammates knew him for.

“We said why didn’t you do the cavadinha,” Morales said. “He took off his shoes and they had stepped on his two big toes and his nails were falling off. He said, ‘I just can’t do the cavadinha.’”

That sounds about right. These days, a set of mashed toes has as good of a chance at of slowing down Paulo Jr. as any MLS defender. The Brazilian has made an impression in less than a year as one of the most exciting and potentially explosive goal scorers in the league.

And that reputation is built by just a handful of appearances earned in a Real Salt Lake jersey since September. Take, for example, when he scored within minutes of making his RSL debut in the CONCACAF Champions League group stage last fall. By the time he was done he'd scored two goals and helped RSL secure not just a win over visiting Mexican power Cruz Azul, but also locked down an important first-place group finish for his club.

Fast starts, however, are the norm for the 22-year-old Paulo Jr.

[inline_node:317971]He was developed in the academy of Brazilian club Desportivo Brasil, owned by Traffic, an international soccer company that has led the restructuring of the second-division NASL in the US. It was the Brazilian head coach of Traffic's South Florida-based club, recently renamed the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, who thought highly enough to bring Paulo Jr. stateside after watching him singlehandedly keep third-division club Ituano from relegation with an inspired performance in the last game of the 2008 season.

“The first day he came, he arrived from Brazil at 5 am and went to practice at 9 am,” said Strikers director of operations Miguel Lopez. “And that first day of practice he was scoring goals left and right.”

It was identical to the impact that Paulo Jr. had when he trialed with Real Salt Lake last summer.

“He showed electric ability with what he does with ball at his feet and with his finishing ability," RSL head coach Jason Kreis said. "Basically, every chance he had, he finished it. He’s one of the very few trialists we’ve ever had that impressed us to such a degree that we were ready to sign him after a single day of training."

Working Man

But had RSL not signed him to a loan deal (it actually took three days to make it final), the LA Galaxy were ready to pounce. In fact, Paulo Jr. had also trialed with the defending Supporters’ Shield champions, but Salt Lake’s discovery option gave them first dibs on their new prized playmaker.

Luckily for Paulo Jr., another Brazilian was on the RSL roster at the time. He moved in with former MLS forward Pablo Campos, who made the transition in Utah a smooth one. After living in Miami for two years, there was little need for him to learn English given the large Brazilian community in South Florida.

But considering the responsibilities Paulo Jr. carried from his days in Brazil, he needed all the support he could get.

Hailing from Pirenópolis, a small town of 7,000 people in the poor Brazilian state of Piauí, learning English was the last thing on Paulo Jr.’s mind. He had enough to do just to survive.

He went to the local school as a child, but his work was far from over when the school day was done. After a quick snack, afternoons were spent in the fields, working with his father to harvest beans and rice. The family paid the land owner in food, and kept the rest to feed themselves.

“I always think about the physical work, and I didn’t want it for me or my family,” Paulo Jr. said. “That’s why I need to play soccer.”

[inline_node:331996]The constant diet of rice and beans, which they grew back in Pirenópolis, is the same food he seeks out thousands of miles away in Salt Lake City.

“There’s a Brazilian barbeque place in one of main malls [in Salt Lake City],” said Fort Lauderdale Strikers GM Luiz Muzzi, who accompanied Paulo Jr. before securing the loan deal last year. “He went there every day for lunch and dinner. He said, ‘I found this place with rice and beans already, why try anything different?'"

Now that his lone sibling has married off, his parents no longer rent the land. His dad today drives an ambulance and his mother works as a salesperson in a local pharmacy back home. But the family are still in need of money, and it’s Paulo Jr.’s sole focus.

Paulo Jr. may not have been in position to contribute from the US had it not been for his uncle, Bausi Rodriguez. He's the one who convinced Paulo Jr. to leave Pirenópolis at the age of 15 and seek out a soccer career that started 60 miles away in Teresina, capital of Piauí.

It was his uncle who housed him and funded the early years of his real soccer development.

“He took a chance on me and always believed in me,” Paulo Jr. said. “He helped me a lot and I owe him a lot. Now here I am playing.”

The adventure started with the local Flamengo club in Teresina, but certainly don't confuse that club with the Brazilian giants. He eventually wound up on Traffic’s radar and with their Desportivo Brasil club in São Paulo. A loan to Serie C club Ituano is what proved the showcase for a move to Miami.

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Paulo Jr. spent an entire week one December eating cookies and water, beacuse he hadn’t planned in advance for the week when the academy kitchen would be closed and he didn’t have enough money. He was too proud to ask anyone for help.

“That hurt me as a person,” Paulo Jr. said. “I couldn’t do anything for my family. When I was passing through this I never told my family anything so that they wouldn’t get worried.”

“For many people, [soccer] is pretty much life and death," said former MLS coach Fernando Clavijo, now the Strikers’ director of soccer. "It influences people’s lives, and Paulo Jr. is one of them. He has nothing to fall back on. He doesn’t have a degree. Soccer is the only thing he has.”

Ticket Out Of Poverty

His work has taken Paulo Jr. far away from his native Pirenópolis, where everyone knows everyone. He dreams of building his family their first real home, and he's already reserved some land for the project. He spends hours on the internet communicating with friends and calling his family.

He desperately wishes he could share a book about his town. His eyes light up when he talks about the local church and the parrot for which the city is best known.

[inline_node:331998]If it sounds like typical Brazilian saudade (homesickness), that's because it is. It's a credit to Paulo Jr. that he is known by coaches and teammates for always wearing a smile. They don't see the heavy heart he carries.

“I feel saudade, but it’s because of my family, it’s tough,” he said. “My heart is there. I love my state. I love Piauí. When my career is done, that’s where I’ll go.”

When he does go back, he’ll take some English skills with him. After the club released Campos, Paulo Jr. has focused on learning English and already enlisted a tutor to help. It’s something the club has been encouraging him to do.

“It’s extremely, extremely important for these guys to ingrain themselves into our community and into our country,” Kreis said. “For Paulo, it’s very important he try to learn our language. It can go a long way to help with the homesickness.”

The language pursuit, however, is secondary. Fans have great expecations based on what they’ve seen thus far, and with starting forward Alvaro Saborio expected to join Costa Rica for extended spells of international duty, Paulo Jr. should get his chance.

The coaching staff has been clear on the boxes that Paulo Jr. has to check: consistency, tactical awareness, off-the-ball work, keeping defenders occupied and using his speed to get behind opposing back lines.

“My objective this year is to become a starter, but I'm calm,” Paulo Jr. said. “I’ll keep working hard and doing my job as usual and hopefully it’s enough to be a starter.”

He needs to leave his mark this year. Real Salt Lake extended his loan deal by one year and will make a decision about whether to exercise their option to sign him through 2014. Judging by what Kreis says about Paulo Jr., he’s well on his way to earning himself a permanent spot on the RSL roster.

“He’s someone who wants a lot of things in his career and he feels strongly about this team,” Kreis said. “He’s an integral part of what we’re going to do here over the months and years ahead.”

Said Paulo Jr., “Here [in the US], a lot of people treat soccer as a pastime. I need soccer to live. That’s why I have no choice. I have to give it my all every day.”