Luis Felipe has spent most of his life growing up in Brazil, but has always felt very American.
Born in New York to Brazilian parents, Felipe left the country at just three years old due to health issues caused by the local weather. Felipe settled in his parents’ native country of Brazil, working his way up through the youth ranks at Brazilian club Cruzeiro while in pursuit of a pro career.
That pursuit has brought the U.S. Under-20 national team midfielder back to the country of his birth after Felipe signed with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the NASL.
It is a return Felipe has been wanting to make for some time.
“I grew up (in Brazil), but I just wanted change in my life. I’m feeling good with that,” Felipe said. “They trained me good but everything I have here is good for me. (Cruzeiro) was very good, a very good team, one of the biggest teams in Brazil. I just wanted change and to move forward. It was a step forward in my career here, and that’s good for me. I was there in the U-20 team, and here I’m in the professional team. I saw a big opportunity for myself and I wanted that. I needed to take the opportunity and come here, and that’s what I did.
“I never thought I’d come here to play when I was a kid, but this time, I started to see how its growing up with the league here, with the NASL and MLS. A lot of big players are coming here and this helps the leagues grow up. I like that. I decided to come because it would be good for me.”
It has been a long time since Felipe lived in the U.S., but he has maintained close ties to this country. As a child, Felipe would visit the U.S. for extended periods, and he learned English to foster his half-American, half-Brazilian identity. With family ties still stationed in New York, Felipe always embraced his American heritage, but never fully grasped how it could impact his soccer career.
Felipe was spotted by U.S. Soccer during a youth tournament with Cruzeiro. Upon his return to Brazil, Felipe’s agent had been contacted regarding the possibility of playing for the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team ahead of U-20 World Cup qualifiers.
Felipe took part in several of those qualifiers, but was forced to miss out on the World Cup due to an ankle injury. After a twist caused a piece of bone to chip off, Felipe played on for three months before doctors stepped in with questions on how the midfielder could even walk. Surgery soon followed to repair the damage done.
Now fully healthy, Felipe is looking to use his move home as an opportunity to move closer to rejoining the national team program after missing out on what he viewed as an event that could have been a highlight of his career.
“I lost the U-20 World Cup, but I played in qualifiers. I got injured,” Felipe said. “It was a bad time for me. I was looking forward to it. I want to come back to the national team and play for them. That’s what I want.
“I just want to play this year, play well, as well as I can to get back to the national team. That’s what I want. I want to be a champion with everything I can be.”
Making the transition to a new team and country all the easier is the presence of several mentors. Playing alongside numerous Brazilian players, Felipe feels the best of both worlds as he communicates with players from both of the places he considers home. Learning from World Cup veteran Kleberson, Felipe says, is a worthwhile opportunity as the group of veterans took the young Brazilian-American under their wing from the outset.
But Felipe’s biggest supporter may just be Strikers head coach Caio Zanardi, who has tracked the midfielder for years. Previously in charge of the Brazil U-17s, Zanardi frequently had a front row seat to Cruzeiro’s training sessions where he saw a young Felipe impress.
Now, several years later, Zanardi proved instrumental in bringing Felipe to Florida, as the two enjoy a special relationship that Felipe says includes a lot of joking in Portuguese.
“Luis Felipe grew up in these few years,” Zanardi told SBI. “Now, he’s with the U-20s, and we are hoping to receive a great player. He’s young, he can grow up, but he never played in this league. He needs adaptation. It’s not simple the first time you come here and start to play. They need a little bit of time, but in soccer, you don’t have time. You need to win matches, but Luis Felipe is motivated for this challenge and I hope he starts to play well from the beginning.
“I saw so many of his matches in Cruzeiro, and now we have this opportunity to bring him to us. He played with the national team, but now he’s here to show everyone that he can stay with us and compete with us.”
By competing with the Strikers, Felipe will be given an opportunity to do something he has yet to do. Stationed in Brazil throughout his career, Felipe has never played in front of his extended family in the U.S., something he plans to do when the Strikers take on the New York Cosmos, who play just a few miles from his birthplace of Mineola.
Having realized his dream of making the United States home again, Felipe has a more simple goal in mind as he works his way toward his first NASL season.
“I just want to play in the most games that I can. No more injuries,” Felipe said. “Just playing and scoring and being a champion. That’s what I want for this year. We have a very good team here and I can see that we can be champions.”