D.C. United midfielder Marcelo Saragosa delivering as a starter

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Marcelo Saragosa didn’t ask for much. One minute, he kept telling his coach, was all he needed.

“I will prove to you I can help you, help the team, help myself,” Saragosa recalled saying to Ben Olsen.

But for the 30-year-old midfielder, even a second of playing time was hard to come by. After starting two of D.C. United’s first three games, Saragosa played sparingly over the subsequent four months, sitting out 15 of 18 games.

Saragosa’s commitment, however, never wavered. He knew his chance would come, and eventually the patience paid off.

On Aug. 22, Saragosa made his first start since early May in a 4-2 win over the Chicago Fire. Now, with Olsen favoring a more defensive alignment down the stretch, the Brazilian has started eight of United’s past 10 matches.

“Going from zero minutes for a long time, and me not having him necessarily in my plans, to him now being a steady starter for us, it’s a tribute to him,” Olsen said. “He’s done a great job to not let the way that I viewed him affect him in the long run.”

Signed during the offseason to add depth, experience and “bite,” as Olsen put it, Saragosa initially struggled for minutes as second-year standout Perry Kitchen emerged in defensive midfield.

It was a problem that paled in comparison to what Saragosa faced off the field when his 60-year-old father died in mid-April after a heart attack. Traveling to Brazil to be with his family, Saragosa took two leaves of absence from the club.

Lately, though, Saragosa has found renewed joy on the field. As Olsen has turned to an “empty bucket” formation featuring two defensive midfielders, he has routinely paired Saragosa with Kitchen in the middle.

In addition to adding a second efficient ball-winner to the equation, the lineup also gives the 20-year-old Kitchen increased flexibility to attack, as well as a savvy veteran to emulate.

“He’s an intelligent player,” Kitchen said. “He’s always in good spots, and it’s great to have a guy in there that’s going to have your back and works extremely hard.”

In United’s playoff-clinching 3-2 win over the Columbus Crew on Saturday, Saragosa buried his first MLS goal since a 2008 tally with FC Dallas.

As Olsen noted, “We haven’t had guys that are able to step up in real big moments, and he seems to be one of those guys.”

With United braced to kick off the postseason following Saturday’s regular-season finale at the Chicago Fire (17-11-5), Saragosa is relishing his role as a seasoned presence in the locker room.

“I try to share a lot of experience because the young players don’t realize how the playoffs are different,” said Saragosa, who won the 2005 MLS Cup with the Los Angeles Galaxy. “Getting a championship is a feeling you cannot imagine.”

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