The young Portuguese midfielder is poised to make a big impact for Real Salt Lake. Is he foreshadowing what's to come in MLS?SANDY, Utah -- It's the 11th minute of Real Salt Lake's reserve match against the Houston Dynamo and both teams are struggling to get anything going. Neither team has managed to get out of the middle third. That's when Real's newest arrival, a 20-year-old midfielder named David Viana picks off a pass, takes one touch forward, and hits an overlapping Kenny Mansally in stride, sending Mansally off to the races, leaving the 200 or so fans oohing and aahing. Mansally nudges a pass to the penalty spot where Emiliano Bonfigli taps it in to give RSL a 1-0 lead.
"Did you see that perfect setup by 25?" one fan says, referring to Viana. "What touch." That's the first thing everyone notices about Viana. And it isn't the last - Viana scored his first goal for Salt Lake just 10 minutes later.
Later, as we speak for the first time, the first thing I notice about Viana is that his Spanish is bad. And I mean really bad. He gets his verb tenses all wrong, his genders confused, and every once in a while he throws in a word I don't recognize, likely from some other language. We're doing this interview in Spanish because he doesn't speak English and I don't speak any of his languages. Spanish is the only one we have in common. I'm not a native Spanish speaker but I sense he's really struggling. Then it dawns on me: He's not a native Spanish speaker either.
At the tender age of 20, David Viana has lived in more countries than most Americans have cities. His ancestry is primarily Spanish but his parents are Portugese. He grew up speaking Portugese at home and considers himself Portugese - in fact, he has played for Portugal's U-17 through U-19 national teams. But he was born and raised in Strasbourg, France.
"As a kid I played mostly with my dad and my cousin," Viana says. "They weren't great players or anything, but they love soccer. My whole family loves soccer."
Their love of soccer made it an easy decision to put young David in a small youth soccer club in Strasbourg. As he grew and worked his way up through the ranks, eventually he got his big break when he signed his first pro contract - with RC Strasbourg of France's Ligue 2. With the club's looming financial insolvency and impending relegation, Viana decided it was time to look elsewhere. He ended up trialing - and quickly signing with - Atletico Madrid of La Liga. He established himself with the reserve teams and did so well that he was often invited to train with the first team.
But he became frustrated with his lack of chances to play with the first team - understandable when you're behind the likes of Emre Belozoglu and Koke on the depth chart. He began to look for options to further his career, trialing with several teams in England, among others. That's where Real Salt Lake entered the picture.
"He's a kid who was brought to our attention by a friend of [former RSL player and current broadcaster] Brian Dunseth's, Sean Higgins," Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey said. "We took it seriously when we scouted him and we liked what we saw. We wanted somebody who could help us at least long-term if not short-term and David was that guy."
So the question that begs answering is, how does an up-and-coming European player with a loaded résumé and no ties to America end up coming to MLS?
Up to now, MLS' experience with European players has largely been limited to older players in the twilight of their careers looking for a cushy league and a nice standard of living where they can ride out their final playing years. The vast majority of young MLS players are either Americans who have come through our domestic development pipelines, or South and Central Americans who are lured by MLS' finer lifestyle and larger paychecks. The fact that a European with Viana's pedigree who has his best years ahead of him, not behind, speaks to the improving reputation of the quality of MLS abroad, both on the field and in the stands.
"I went to see the last game [RSL's 2-1 win over Portland] and the fans were just amazing," said Viana. "I think the atmosphere is better than in Europe."
Having chosen to come to MLS, the other question that needs to be answered is why Viana chose RSL? Salt Lake is not Los Angeles or New York or Chicago, either in terms of market size or recognition to a young European soccer player.
"People were telling me this is a very good club," Viana said. "It seemed like this was going to be a very good opportunity for me."
"One of the things he told us before he signed was that we play a style that he wants to play," Lagerwey said. "He wants to play a possession-type game. That's how we play."
It's now the 60th minute of the RSL/Houston reserve match and Viana is out of gas. He's seeing little of the ball and his man is running loose on the wing. Lagerwey notices it too, just as Viana is subbed off in favor of Johnny Steele. "We've got to work on his fitness, we've got to work on his defense. He's got to adjust to the league, obviously. But all this stuff is normal, natural stuff. Remember, he's been with us less than a month."
Later on, Viana agrees with Lagerwey's assessment, but he quickly reminds me that he's been on a different fitness calendar. "In Europe the season is starting now," he says. "Here's it's been going for a long time."
Viana will soon have a full offseason to get his body right. He likely won't contribute much this year in what amounts to an extended trial, but next year will be the first of a three-year deal with RSL. For now, he's content to adjust to his new home and learn from his teammates, some of whom are among the league's best. Fabian Espindola is his favorite so far.
"Things are good [with the team]," Viana says. "My integration is going well. There are a lot of players who speak Spanish. And Paulo Jr. [his current roommate] speaks Portuguese. So I like it."
"Half of our team speaks Spanish, or at least it seems that way, so the cultural transition is no problem," Lagerwey laughs. "My biggest fear is that he's not going to learn English."
The reserve match is over, and after Viana scored a goal and nabbed an assist in the first 20 minutes, plus a number of other sweet plays that ultimately went unrewarded, Lagerwey is effusive in his praise of his latest find. It's clear that, for David Viana, the sky is the limit.
"I think he's a kid with a lot of potential and I think you saw today a little bit of what he can do. My takeaway from today is I'm very encouraged with his level of play. He's technical but fast with the ball as well. If you watch him make decisions, he passes the ball very cleanly. Did you see his goal today? The ball was struck very cleanly. So he's very clean, very composed, very consistent that way, but he's also got a bit of a burst of speed that not all our guys have."
The hope on both sides is Viana will suit up for more than the reserves.
"I just want to play. A lot," Viana says. "And I want to play well. That's my first goal here. Another of my goals is to return to play with the Portuguese national team. And, of course, I want to win."
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