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Oct 19, 2008

Pauleta declines the MLS option

Fall River, Mass., feels like home to Pedro Miguel Carreiro da Ponte Resendes. The many hundreds of people who greet him know him as Pauleta, the all-time leading scorer in Portugal's national team history. Restaurants specialize in cuisine from his island, Sao Miguel. People speak in his Azorean dialect and remember how he commemorated goals by extending his arms like the goshawk, which gives the Azores their name.

Pauleta was in Fall River last week on a fundraising tour but could have been in the area for soccer reasons -- he was recruited by MLS teams and said he wanted to play for New England. Jose Silva, a television producer who is accompanying Pauleta, said both the Revolution and New York Red Bulls offered contracts. Pauleta and Silva agreed the money was not good enough.

Pauleta's career with Paris Saint-Germain ended abruptly after last season, and he is now "almost 100 percent" retired. There were negotiations with Middle Eastern and second-division English clubs. But Pauleta, 35, seems to be adjusting to a role as an "ambassador" for PSG and as a representative of the Azores.

In most ways, MLS, specifically the Revolution, would have been a good fit for Pauleta. Several relatives live in the area, including an uncle in Fall River, and others live in Toronto. His father played semi-professional soccer in Fall River, where several leagues are supported by thousands of Portuguese immigrants, many of whom are successful businessmen. Gillette Stadium even features a statue of Eusebio, Portugal's all-time leading scorer until Pauleta came along.

Pauleta might have followed in the footsteps of Eusebio, who played in Boston and Foxborough, Mass., in the North American Soccer League in the 1970s. But Pauleta is used to making a goal-scorer's salary, and MLS apparently could not -- or would not -- meet his demands.

When Pauleta transferred from Bordeaux to PSG, he signed a three-year contract worth 12 million euros.

And Pauleta (a nickname derived from his grandmother's family) fulfilled his end of the deal. Pauleta is PSG's all-time career scoring leader (109 goals). He racked up 212 goals in 424 league games from 1994 to 2008 (plus another 52 goals in domestic and European cup matches) and was twice named player of the year in France's Championnat. Pauleta also had 47 goals in 88 matches for Portugal, breaking Eusebio's record of 41 (in 64 games).

Pauleta is 6-foot, lanky and likely close to his playing weight of 165 pounds. He combined finesse and power as a scorer, but his scoring also resulted from stealth and subtlety. He never suffered a career-threatening injury. Doubtless, he could have produced in MLS.

"I have some friends in the U.S., and they tell me it's a strong and physical league," Pauleta said of MLS. "I've seen some games, but not in person. I know it's difficult to play anywhere."

Pauleta has talked with Abel Xavier and D.C. United Argentinian midfielder Marcelo Gallardo ("my very good friend"), his former teammate at PSG. Clearly, Pauleta would have relished a chance to team up again with Gallardo.

"In the last few years I've been content to be in Paris," Pauleta said. "I played well last year, but there were problems. Now I'm 35 years old, and I have to think of my family. I have other motivations and opportunities, working with foundations, and back in Paris."

Pauleta presents a sophisticated presence, conducting interviews in several languages (though not in English). On this night, he is cooperative and patient with dozens of admirers before being served dinner at Terra Nostra, an Azorean restaurant in Fall River. A Red Sox baseball game is showing on the bar's television, but everyone is crowded around Pauleta, and they follow him as he slowly moves to the dining area. Pauleta is far from the spotlight in this place; his visit has a low-key feel, and his intention of raising funds for scholarships seems genuine.

Among Azoreans, Pauleta is a revered figure. Less so among Portuguese soccer aficionados, who blame their forwards for not producing when it counts and note that Pauleta's goal-per-game average is less than Eusebio's for the Seleccao. It might have been different, but for a couple of key games -- Portugal's loss to the U.S. and elimination against South Korea in the 2002 World Cup and the defeat against Greece in the '04 European Cup final in Lisbon.

"We were surprised in this game," Pauleta said of the 3-2 loss to the U.S. "It was our inaugural game, and the U.S. gave a great effort -- we were down three goals in 15 minutes. Then, against Korea, there were eight minutes left when they scored the goal."

Pauleta is part of what is considered a golden generation in Portugal, though he was something of a latecomer after the success at the junior level of Rui Costa, Luis Figo & Co.

"Eusebio is the best player of all time in Portugal," Pauleta said. "Then there is Figo from our generation, and now Cristiano Ronaldo."

Pauleta seems at peace with himself, content with his accomplishments.

"I scored regularly, every year," Pauleta said. "I helped Salamanca to the Primera Division [in Spain], scored a lot of goals for La Coruna and won the Liga [2000], won four cups with PSG. I played 10 years with the Seleccao and am the leading scorer. Unfortunately, we didn't win any tournaments."

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.com.

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