D.C. United general manager Dave Kasper smiled as he watched practice Tuesday afternoon. A breeze had mitigated the mid-day sun, his team was riding a four-game streak without a loss and Luciano Emilio was bouncing around the field with the energy of a schoolboy - charging through sprints, smacking headers with force and smiling his infectious smile.
The star striker was back to being himself. This was the player Kasper was referring to when he told coach Tom Soehn, "We have a real gem on our hands here," after the affable Brazilian signed with the team in January 2007.
This was the player on the Times Square-sized billboard outside RFK Stadium, beaming out at travelers on Interstate 295 like a lighthouse beacon.
This was the joke-cracking, grin-a-minute, goal-scoring machine that United missed earlier in the season, when last season's MLS MVP was in a seven-game scoreless slump and the team dropped four straight matches.
United has benefited from the 29-year-old's recent rejuvenation - he has scored six goals in four games, including a hat trick last Saturday - on the pitch, winning its last four matches and climbing past New York in the Eastern Conference standings. But the re-emergence of Emilio's leadership - if that is what sliding across the locker room floor or impersonating Soehn in mangled English can be called - has been just as valuable as his scoring.
"He's in better spirits, and now the whole team is in better spirits," injured midfielder Ben Olsen said. "Luc is a big part of the personality on this team."
Emilio's passion was the thing that grabbed Kasper's attention when the GM first watched film of the Sao Paulo native "tearing it up" for Honduras' Real Espana in 2004. Kasper coveted the ebullient striker for United, but with salary cap space at a premium, he was forced to choose between Emilio or Argentine star Christian Gomez. Given the circumstances, both sides agreed the timing wasn't right. Gomez came to United, while Emilio remained in Honduras, signing with powerhouse club CD Olimpia.
Three years passed, but Kasper followed Emilio from afar as he captured a scoring title and helped Olimpia to three domestic titles. In 2007, Kasper called Emilio's agent, Alexander Solis, again. Soon thereafter, Emilio was stateside, signing a four-year deal to play in the District.
"I thought that the MLS was growing and that it was a league that would have been a step up from where I was at," Emilio said through an interpreter. "It would give me an opportunity to further my career."
That it did. In a year highlighted by the arrival of big-time foreign players - England's David Beckham, Mexico's Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Colombia's Juan Pablo Angel signed with Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, respectively - the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Emilio shined the brightest, netting a league-high 20 goals and winning the MLS Golden Boot award. On the field and in the locker room, he earned the respect of teammates with his playful manner and childlike enthusiasm.
"He was always singing and mocking everyone good-naturedly," said former United defender Bobby Boswell, who was traded to Houston in the offseason. "I've never played with anyone who loved scoring goals as much as him. He even celebrated scoring in practice."
Boswell found his new teammate so entertaining that he filmed Emilio for his Web site. Now, the site features a video of Emilio struggling to twist his tongue around Boswell's alliterative moniker, another of Emilio working on his golf game and one in which he attempts to sing English pop star James Blunt's "You're Beautiful" despite knowing only the words "you're" and "beautiful."
"I like to joke around with my teammates. I like to see that my teammates have fun," Emilio said. "I am the type of person who likes to feel lively and happy, and I want people around me to be happy."
This was the side of Emilio that was missing early in the season, when he was scoring, and United wasn't winning. After scoring only once in April, the club upped Emilio's contract, thinking perhaps a little added motivation might remedy his woes. When he continued to struggle, he began the Chivas USA match on May 17 on the bench. Soehn publicly questioned his player's effort when Emillio again failed to score the next week against Toronto FC. Rumors swirled about his future with United.
Worried, Kasper and Olsen decided it was time to have a talk with Emilio. Both had a one-on-one meeting with him.
"This is what happens when you're an MVP and you score that many goals," Olsen told his teammate. "People are going to look at you. It's a heavy jersey and a heavy responsibility."
Kasper caught up with Emilio soon thereafter.
"Luci, you got to start enjoying yourself here," he said. "You're beating yourself up, and you got to start having fun again. We want to see your personality come out."
The next weekend, on May 24, Toronto and United were tied 2-2 when United striker Santino Quaranta launched a shot in the 72nd minute.
Toronto goalkeeper Greg Sutton batted the ball to the turf but failed to notice Emilio charging in. Before Sutton could react, Emilio had rocketed the rebound past Sutton and was streaking down the field in celebration. He lifted his jersey - no longer weighted by unfulfilled expectations - and extended his arms. He smiled.
The drought was over. United was victorious for the first time in five weeks. Emilio was back.
"That [goal] really let me know that I was going down the right path and to keep moving forward," said Emilio, who confided in his wife, Elenice, during his frustrating stretch. "As a player, you know you are always going to have those streaks, but that the streak has to end as well."
On Tuesday, the club said it would begin negotiations to sign Emilio - who loves the D.C. area and plans to buy a bigger house for Elenice and Emily, the couple's 20-month-old-daughter - to a long-term contract. He spends his days eating Brazilian food with fellow teammate and countryman Fred (they frequent Chima, a Brazilian eatery in Vienna), improving his English (Emilio is already fluent in Portuguese, Spanish and German) and attending church.
He still belts out "You're Beautiful" on occasion and is currently working on his own rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner."
"He doesn't know any of the words, so he makes stuff up that sounds right," Olsen said.
Long after practice ended Tuesday afternoon, Emilio still sat in the team media room inside RFK. Finally, he rose from his seat, and lowering a pair of Ray Bans over his eyes, prepared to step out into the mid-day glare. There was still so much left for him to do - more questions to answer and cameras to pose for, more goals to score and teams to leapfrog in the standings. As he turned for the hallway, defender Marc Burch greeted him in a weary monotone.
"Hey ... Luc ...," Burch said.
"Hey!" shrieked Luciano, beaming as if he hadn't seen his teammate in years. "My friend!"