At first glance, Marcelo Gallardo doesn't seem up to carrying the hopes of a franchise like DC United. At 5-foot-7, the Argentine midfielder is small, and despite the slight illusion of youth that this imparts, his 32 years are evident in his face. Or perhaps world-weariness is understandable given his team's dire season thus far.
"I'm doing all right," Gallardo said of integrating with the team. "I'm learning every day to adapt."
Something magical can take place whenever the ball is on Gallardo's foot. His skill and technique, whether in striking, passing or controlling the ball, is of such a high level that he becomes a force to be reckoned with on the field. He can nearly single-handedly turn a match in his team's favor. Against Chivas USA on May 17, Gallardo produced such a play to put D.C. United up by a goal in the first half, his third tally of the year. It was a sublime strike into the upper corner, rivaled only perhaps by the quality of the separation move Gallardo executed in order to free himself for the shot.
Unfortunately for D.C., Gallardo's contribution wasn't enough to secure a win, as Chivas USA rallied to score three goals in the second half and win the game.
The blow was made more painful by the fact that the poor result wasn't an aberration. United is in the midst of one of the worst seasons in its history. With only two wins this season, DC United is a club in crisis.
"Everybody has to dig deeper," said United head coach Tom Soehn. "Winning and losing is a habit. Everybody is held accountable."
Perhaps few are held as accountable, though, as the squad's new designated-player signing, especially when that person is compensated by a salary of nearly $2 million annually. Gallardo's contract makes him the most expensive soccer player in D.C. United history.
"We know that [Gallardo] can give us more and he knows that, too," said Jaime Moreno, the club's veteran forward and team captain.
Indeed, Gallardo is keenly aware that expectations had not been met.
"I had hoped to make better progress with the team," Gallardo said of his MLS tenure thus far. "We've only begun, though, and we still have time to progress."
What is strange is how difficult MLS as an entity and the club owners individually have made things for their new DP choices. It's as if, in the eagerness to sign a big-time contract, the miracle-making abilities of incoming players are enhanced and believed to the furthest extent. They are trusted to overcome obstacles simply on sheer talent.
David Beckham, for example, was saddled by the Galaxy and MLS with a ridiculous playing schedule during his first months last year. It didn't help that he was carrying a slight injury in addition to the high hopes of an entire league. Trying to live up to such demands nearly proved disastrous for Beckham. He played through pain, and eventually ended up hurting himself again.
Red Bull New York, meanwhile, ponied up the cash for two DP players, even though the team plays on an atrocious artificial surface. It might be that Juan Pablo Angel's back problems and Claudio Reyna's knee difficulties are entirely unrelated to this, but both players have already missed games this season.
What D.C. United did in Gallardo's case was to create a situation that, given the midfielder's personality and skill set, set Gallardo up to struggle mightily.
"What I know now about the league after some games is that it's very competitive," Gallardo said. "Any team can beat any team, and there's not really one team that's far better than all the rest."
Parity means that a team, and its star players, can't really take time off, even to nurse niggling knocks. Gallardo has missed a couple of games this season already, and D.C. lost every one. The pressure, like Beckham had, to play even when injured mounts when a squad can't compensate on its own. The competitive squeeze of the league is only one factor that's different in MLS.
"It's never easy when you go to a new league and a new country," Moreno acknowledged."There's a lot of things to adjust to."
Granted, every foreign player has to deal with a bit of culture shock. Yet Gallardo was not the first choice of United for a DP contract (the club pursued and failed to land Juan Sebastian Veron). Moreover, he was given the jersey number of the departing Christian Gomez, a former league MVP. D.C.'s former No. 10 was not only skillful but also charismatic and a huge fan favorite, the type of player who did things like serve out a league suspension by joining fans in the stands to cheer on United during an away match.
By contrast, Gallardo isn't that type of outgoing personality. It's also hard for a player to feel really comfortable on the field when more time is spent rehabbing with the training staff than developing connections with other players in practice sessions.
"It's been tough; he's [Gallardo] been in and out of training the last few weeks with minor strains and nicks and stuff," said D.C. goalkeeper Zach Wells. "Everybody respects him. They know that he's been in a couple of World Cups and played at the highest level. He's more of a quiet leader. He'd like to do his leading on the field."
Though he couldn't boast a World Cup tenure, Gomez was demonstrative about his passion for the game, and his vocal intensity was infectious.
Gallardo is also passionate about soccer, but in a more internal manner that despairs a little when his teammates are not so focused on the sport.
"I have to get used to a new group with a different mentality than what I've been used to," Gallardo said. "I've always lived for soccer, in every sense. Here, for some of the guys, they don't look at soccer as a passion that fills their entire being. Sometimes, I think they see it as a job, mostly. You've got to feel more intensity for the game."
Despite the other problems inherent in joining a new team and league, this American-style of thinking, whereby many pro players in soccer are often fans of other sports and don't even watch soccer games in their free time, might be part of a philosophical gap that will take Gallardo time to get used to.
"Soccer is our work," declared Moreno of D.C.'s performance. "We haven't done our job."
D.C. officials couldn't be expected to anticipate all the contingencies of a new signing, but if an expensive player is being brought in to replace a beloved one, simple awareness dictates that the transition will be easier on all parties if other elements involved remain stable. Yet besides bringing in Gallardo, United management overhauled the team drastically. Instead of trying to keep intact the squad that won the most regular-season games in 2007, players were swapped out as if the club had missed the playoffs.
Instead of introducing Gallardo to a well-established system and style of play, most of his new teammates were busy trying to get acquainted with that themselves, especially since many were brought in from other countries.
"Language is only part of it," said Wells, who has had several miscues with his defenders."All of us come from different backgrounds and different styles of play. Whereas maybe the team that I played with for the past couple of years wouldn't assume that a goalkeeper is coming out for certain balls or anything else, these guys were used to something different.
"It's a matter of sorting through it. It's less about talking and more about getting comfortable with each other and knowing what to expect from each other."
Even players who have started working well with Gallardo are aware of the challenges of the team meshing as a whole.
"There's a lot of young guys and a lot of guys who came in," said Santino Quaranta. "Our mentality is not on the same page. Some players are there and some aren't. We can't win like that."
Quaranta had the assist on Gallardo's last goal, and he hopes to build on that.
"Marcello is a great player," said Quaranta. "We have to find him more. He's our playmaker. I feel that he's doing much better. We're doing alright [connecting on the field], but it's not good enough."
In some ways, Gallardo is underused with D.C., because while his passing ability is impressive, he has yet to register an assist. The understanding with teammates simply isn't there yet. It's hard to imagine it could develop easily when such a large number of players are figuring out where and how they fit into the squad.
"When there's a group of seven or eight players, like we had come in this year, it's basically a new process, with a lot of changes," said Gallardo. "That takes some time for the players to learn to work together, because they don't know each other and they have to all adapt to the system.
"If it's one person, the adjustment happens more quickly. When just a few players are new, they can adapt easily to a group that's basically all set to go. In this case, it's different."
A good playmaker rarely integrates seamlessly to a squad. The intuitive sense of where players are and how to get them the ball in the right spots takes time to develop, which might be why the Columbus Crew is having such a banner season during Guillermo Barros Schelotto's second year in MLS. It's also not easy for Gallardo to tally assists when D.C.'s top forward, Luciano Emilio, has looked out of shape and ineffective.
The poor record of United has put the tenure of Soehn on thin ice. He may need a superlative effort from his miracle-making midfielder to save him. Gallardo appears concentrated on improving. There are, after all, certain things he can count on even in the worst of times.
"In soccer, the dimensions of the fields are the same, it's 11 against 11, and the ball is placed in the middle," Gallardo said. "That all stays the same."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at email@example.com.