ST. PETERSBURG — The pop of his left ankle scared Steevan Dos Santos. The fact he stayed down longer than usual scared Neill Collins, his Rowdies coach.
Dos Santos had been tackled during a training session before an early June match. That led to the rolled ankle, the pop and the instant thought that he had broken it. The forward’s mind flashed to a similar injury from 2021 — only this time an ankle instead of a metatarsal, the left foot instead of the right — that sidelined him for three months. Those concerns continued until X-rays and MRIs diagnosed a sprain.
It sidelined Dos Santos for the next month, but for the second consecutive season he followed an injury absence with a scoring burst. Last year, he closed the season with five goals over his last four games. This year, he has tallied four over his past three matches. To top it off, he made back-to-back editions of the USL Championship Team of the Week.
At 32, Dos Santos has overcome injuries and age — two things he never worried about while learning soccer in Cape Verde or progressing through the early stages of his professional career — by embracing recoveries, maximizing his 6-foot-4 frame and maintaining his mobility.
“He’s tall, but he plays like a 5-(foot)-7 guy,” Kenardo Forbes, Dos Santos’ former Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and Rochester Rhinos teammate, said. “When it’s time for him to get big, he plays big, but he gets in and out of those spaces like a small guy.”
Dos Santos didn’t settle into a forward position until he turned 18 or 19. Before that, he experimented with different positions. At times, it was goalie. Another coach placed him at center back. He slid up to right wing and down to right back. But when Dos Santos started with a low-level team in Cape Verde, his coach recognized the advantages his height would present as a forward.
The team didn’t pay a salary. If it won or tied, Dos Santos earned some money. If it lost, he’d get nothing, he said. Dos Santos’ father found him a job selling car parts, and during lunch breaks Dos Santos ran on a local field to stay fit. He often couldn’t attend every practice due to his work schedule.
His strong play impressed CS Mindelense. It was one of the more prominent teams in Cape Verde, Dos Santos said, but in order to play for it, he’d have to quit his job and commit full-time. His mother was on board. His father wasn’t, at first.
“That was a risk, and I was willing to take it,” Dos Santos said.
From there, Mindelense’s president connected Dos Santos to Ullensaker/Kisa IL, a Norwegian club. He progressed to a team in Angola, though an error with a transfer document prevented him from playing for more than half the season. For more than six months, Dos Santos practiced but stayed back during games. The house he shared with other players sat empty on game days, with the exception of Dos Santos.
Before the 2015 season, he traveled to Rochester, New York, for a tryout. Then-head coach Bob Lilley was intrigued by Dos Santos’ film but wanted to arrange an in-person evaluation. That led to a deal, and Dos Santos scored eight goals as Rochester won the 2015 USL Championship. In 2017, after another season with the Rhinos, Dos Santos reunited with former Rochester teammate Onua Obasi by signing with the Ottawa Fury.
While Dos Santos figured out his apartment situation, he lived in Obasi’s basement. When they weren’t training, the pair played the Diablo video game on Xbox. After two seasons and 15 goals, Dos Santos joined Pittsburgh, where Forbes and Lilley again became his teammate and coach, respectively.
At each stop, Dos Santos avoided major injuries. The last four years, though, that’s changed. He had a bone spur his first year in Pittsburgh that led to surgery. The lower-body injuries with Tampa Bay followed.
During his latest return, he meshed seamlessly with the Rowdies’ lineup. His veteran presence helped stabilize their injections of youth, and Collins — who played against Dos Santos when Collins was in Tampa Bay and Dos Santos in Ottawa — said he exemplifies a player improving with age. Over time, Dos Santos said he learned more about his body. Collins said he also avoided a trap that strikers face: an over-reliance on speed.
“He doesn’t score as many as sometimes those typical goal-scorers,” Lilley said, “but he brings so much more in so many other areas.”
After the 2020 season, Collins felt the Rowdies needed someone who could receive the ball with his back to the net. Dos Santos fit that description. As attacks develop upfield, he can hold balls and allow other offensive players to join the rush, Obasi said. Some strikers just want to score — what Obasi called the “I want the goal” mindset — but Dos Santos knows when to distribute the ball, too.
And now, around his injuries, Dos Santos has become a focal point of the Rowdies’ offense because of that growing role.
“He’s not really that post-up player that we had in Rochester that first year,” Forbes said. “He’s more mobile.”
vs. Detroit City FC, 7:30 Saturday
Al Lang Stadium