Union fans have waited a long time for the team to have a high-quality striker.
From what Sergio Santos has shown so far, he has the potential to fit the bill.
He’s fast, strong, and relishes the high-pressing style the Union want to play. Watch him in practice (or in highlights on YouTube) and you see a player with an instinct for goals and the skills to deliver them.
“He’s a powerful runner, really explosive, a guy that’s really good around the goal,” manager Jim Curtin said. “He has a good left foot, he’s finished off a lot of chances in tight spaces.”
Santos' history has some notable chapters. A native of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, he started out in the youth academy of local team América Mineiro -- a club whose famous alumni include former Arsenal stalwart Gilberto Silva and current Everton playmaker Richarlison.
In 2015, Santos moved to Chilean club Audax Italiano. He scored 19 goals in 56 games there and helped the team reach last year’s Copa Sudamericana, the team’s first participation in a South American continental tournament in a decade.
As he settles into life here, Santos, 24, knows there are expectations on him from fans who want goals, wins and entertaining soccer. He embraces that.
“I was in Chile for five years and I think I developed as much as I could there,” he said. “So now I come to the United States to continue developing and continue rising to the next level. I think it’s great to have those expectations to continue to push me.”
Santos doesn’t speak English yet, but he doesn’t have to for now. He’s one of four Brazilians on the team, and his fluency in Spanish makes for easy communication with many other teammates. He wants to learn English, though, because he aspires to play in Europe someday. He has watched MLS grow into a league in which young South American players can show off their potential, and wants to make his own statement.
“Before, there weren’t so many eyes on [MLS], but now there’s a bunch of eyes on this league, watching the players that are coming and the players that are going,” Santos said. “It’s a league that’s really starting to gain some prestige on the world stage."
The Union want the same thing. They bought Santos for the purpose of selling him in a few years, and used that potential as part of their sales pitch to him. Santos liked what he heard.
“You come here as a player in order to develop,” Santos said. "You have the possibility to move on to a bigger team, maybe England or elsewhere in Europe.”
Santos also appreciates the life he can have off the field in the United States. He specifically mentioned the Union’s “infrastructure,” and called that one of the reasons why he picked the Union over a rival bid from Mexican club Necaxa.
“When I got the final offer from Philadelphia, I saw they offered me stability, a good life,” he said. “Mexico’s reputation is of paying more, but sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Here in the United States, they respect your contract more.”
Santos need not be burdened with the history of his disappointing predecessors. The failures of Jay Simpson, Jack McInerney, and others to deliver on expectations -- remember Lionard Pajoy and Jorge Perlaza? -- aren’t his fault.
But it just so happens that Santos comes here with a unique link to some of Philadelphia’s all-time soccer greats. The stadium where Santos played in América Mineiro’s academy was the site of the United States' legendary 1950 World Cup upset of England. He literally followed the footsteps of men such as Ed McIlvenny and Walter Bahr.
Maybe it’s a bit much to say Santos represents Belo Horizonte returning the favor. But if he succeeds here, he’ll at least help bring Philadelphia back into the soccer spotlight.