BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Growing up in Brazil and playing almost all of his professional career in Portugal, Chicago Fire defender Marcelo only needed to know one language.
As the 29-year-old now adjusts to life in America and Major League Soccer, Marcelo is also handling a language barrier. For the first time in his career, Portuguese is no longer the native tongue.
“Everything is new,” Marcelo said through a translator. “Everything is different.”
He left his home country for Portugal in 2010, when he joined Ribeirão in the third division. Over the years, he worked his way up to one of the biggest clubs in the country, Sporting Lisbon.
However, his stint there, which began last May, did not include any appearances in league matches. Before joining the Fire, he last played in a cup match in October.
Marcelo was in the first season of a three-year contract with Sporting and it didn’t look like his prospects for playing time would get significantly better. The Fire took advantage.
“It was through Sporting that the Fire reached out,” Marcelo said. “I liked MLS. I think MLS is growing and I thought it was a good opportunity to come live in the US.”
He started the season opener in LA. He played next to Dutchman Johan Kappelhof at centerback. Kappelhof is the most tenured player on the Fire.
Communication between those two and the back line and team in general is key for Marcelo. For now, he says he is more comfortable understanding short commands than giving out his own.
“Johan is a very technical player,” Marcelo said. “It’s very easy to play alongside him. I wanted to step up and make sure we’re doing our best to help the team.”
Integrating players who don’t know English very well is nothing new for the Fire or any professional soccer team. The same situation applies to fellow offseason signing Przemysław Frankowski. At least with Frankowski, he can integrate himself in Chicago’s robust Polish community and talk with striker Nemanja Nikolic, who played in Poland before joining the Fire. Marcelo is the only fluent Portuguese speaker on the Fire.
He said he is planning to take English classes and have a better handle on the language in the next few months.
“I think he is adjusting very well,” coach Veljko Paunović said. “Of course, he is learning English and he is communicating. When you are on the field you don’t need sentences. You need just a couple of words or maybe one single word can fix the thing, so that’s what we encourage in him. He is settling well in the city. I think he is happy, his family is happy.”
As far as off-the-field adjustments, Marcelo said with a laugh that he likes Chicago, other than the cold, so far.
“It’s very cold here, but I love the city, the restaurants, the music, the culture,” Marcelo said. “It’s a great city.”
Saturday’s home opener against Orlando will feature a familiar face for Marcelo. He will be reunited with Portuguese winger Nani. The pair were teammates at Sporting Lisbon and became friends.
“We keep in touch,” Marcelo said. “When Orlando signed him I sent him a message welcoming to the league. I joked with him that when he came to play us, hopefully we would win the game. On the field I don’t have any friends so it’s going to be a competitive game, but we’re friends off the pitch.”