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Rafael now front and center for D.C. United

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Sports,D.C. United,Craig Stouffer

Young Brazilian added as a designated player

One year later, D.C. United has its center forward for the future -- again.

The acquisition of 20-year-old Brazilian Rafael Teixeira de Souza on a one-year loan from Bahia in the Brazilian first division couldn't be more different from the arrival of veteran Albanian Hamdi Salihi in a transfer from Rapid Vienna last winter. Yet it is oddly familiar.

First and foremost, it comes in the wake of Salihi's disappointing season in 2012. His seeming exclusion from United's plans going forward helped precipitate the need for fresh attacking talent.

Instead of Europe, United centered its efforts on South America. Instead of a player in his late 20s reaching the presumed apex of his career, this time United honed in on upside and a lesser impact on the team's salary budget.

As a "young designated player" -- the second youngest in Major League Soccer history -- Rafael will count $200,000 against United's salary cap. General manager Dave Kasper said there were funds available from MLS to make the signing possible. Rafael was brought in with a view toward a permanent transfer, and with that in mind a fee already has been negotiated should United decide to keep him in December.

"There were a lot more accomplished players and experienced players at the No. 9 position that we had on our radar," Kasper said. "But there was something about his total package that intrigued us with Rafael."

United coach Ben Olsen said the 6-foot, 190-pound striker, who had 10 goals in 36 appearances last year for Bahia, is expected to compete with Lionard Pajoy (three goals in 12 games) for a starting job.

"Physically, he fits the demands of our league. That's a good starting point," Olsen said. "There's got to be a certain patience we have with him. But I certainly think he has the potential to be a big-time forward in this league."

Olsen touted Rafael as a striker in his own image, as hardworking as he is talented. At Bahia he was known as the "Gladiator" for his physical style and thumbs-down goal celebration.

"It's the same nickname I had as a player," Olsen said. "There's a commitment level of this guy. He's certainly not shy of contact, and I think that's probably where he gets it."

Last year, of course, United made similar statements about Salihi, who scored six goals but was relegated to a minor role off the bench by season's end.

"We've been searching for the right No. 9 for this club for a while now, and we think we've found it," Olsen said last February.

Eleven months later, with a first playoff appearance as coach under his belt, Olsen likes his roster and what he expects from healthy returns by Dwayne De Rosario (seven goals, 12 assists) and Chris Pontius (12 goals, four assists).

"I'm not going to put crazy demands on this guy," Olsen said. "We've got firepower. We've scored goals. ... He is our guy. We're not actively looking for any other No.?9s. We'll go with who we are."

cstouffer@washingtonexaminer.com

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