As he approached a crossing for the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, Fountas noticed a turtle dangerously close to the road. He hopped out of his car and lifted the small terrapin by its shell to grassy safety.
Unbeknown to him, his passenger, communications manager Sam Legg, captured the episode on video and posted it on Twitter to whimsical music.
“I had to make sure no one ran it over,” Fountas said this week through an interpreter, beaming a smile that has endeared him to seemingly everyone in the MLS organization. “I don’t know where he is now, but I love animals.”
Since joining United in early April, the Greek forward, who is known as Taxi, has done a lot. Why not rescue a wayward turtle too?
Amid a difficult spring, when defeats have outpaced victories and the coach was abruptly fired after just six matches, Fountas has brought fresh hope with an infectious personality and impact performances. He has had a hand in United’s past nine goals, scoring five, assisting three and playing a key role on the other one.
“When he first came in, we saw him do a couple [training] sessions,” wing back Brad Smith said. “You could tell straightaway he was a great player. So it was just a matter of him getting comfortable. It’s been a great start for him.”
Fountas, 26, was not supposed to join United until July. Over the winter, while still a member of Austria’s Rapid Vienna, he signed a precontracta mechanism unique to soccer that allows players to find a new home within six months of their current deal expiring.
Both he and United, though, were eager to begin their relationship sooner. So over the next two months, a deal was reached with Rapid Vienna that allowed him to leave early. The impact on United’s attack has been unmistakable.
“Coming into the team, they all really made me feel welcome,” Fountas said. “I don’t really see myself as being big and successful. It was all about helping the team as a whole rise together.”
Beyond the production, his connectivity with teammates off the field is what has stood out. And he’s made those connections with limited English and no Spanish, United’s prominent tongues.
He does speak German, learned from years playing in Austria and Germany. Two other United players are fluent: wing back Julian Gressel, who is from Germany, and defensive midfielder Russell Canouse, an American who began his career in Germany.
When United signed Fountas in January, Gressel proactively contacted Fountas via Instagram to make him feel welcome to his new club. Canouse followed suit.
“I asked him what language he preferred, German or English?” Gressel said. “He said, ‘My German isn’t very good.’ My English is terrible. So let’s do German.’ I certainly couldn’t do Greek.”
When Fountas doesn’t understand coaching instruction or player conversation at United’s training facility, he turns to Gressel or Canouse. Fountas does understand a lot of English; he just is not comfortable speaking it. In an interview this week, he had an interpreter by his side but didn’t need help with some questions.
Asked about his favorite player when he was younger, he quickly answered, “Messi.”
Asked whether he would tattoo his right leg, like much of the rest of his body, he said in English: “Maybe. I don’t know. But I like tattoos.” (His favorites: three lions on his back, symbolizing his family, and the Batman symbol on his left leg.)
Fountas has bonded perhaps the most with Smith, an Australian who doesn’t know a lick of Greek or German. “He taught me some bad words in Greek,” Smith said, grinning.
“With soccer, it’s a universal language,” Smith added. “Everyone knows how to play at the professional level, so you can do things that everyone understands, even with the language barrier. There are a bunch of languages here, but we all speak the ‘football’ language.”
Fountas’s link with teammates and coaches has strengthened team culture and camaraderie, coaches and players said.
“Taxi’s awesome. He really is,” goalkeeper Jon Kempin said. “He doesn’t speak too much English, but he is a little bit of a jokester. The little English he knows, he is always smiling, always laughing. That’s the positive energy our team needs in the locker room, and then he goes out on the field and works his butt off.”
Fountas grew up in Mesolongi, a town of 35,000 on the Gulf of Patras in western Greece. His father worked for a company that manufactures cosmetics supplies, his mother tended to a small olive business. Two older brothers played soccer at low levels.
Fountas’s career path took him from one of Greece’s famous clubs, AEK Athens, to teams in Austria, Germany and elsewhere in Greece. His big move came in 2019, when he joined Rapid Vienna. In his first season, he scored 19 goals in 27 league matches and finished third in the scoring race.
His production cooled some the subsequent two seasons and, by this past winter, he had fallen out of favor with the coaching staff. With his contract expiring this summer, he was free to pursue other opportunities. United agreed to pay him $7 million over three seasons — the richest deal on the team — but because he remained tied to Rapid Vienna, he wasn’t scheduled to make his MLS debut until July 8 at Philadelphia.
Fountas, though, was eager to join as soon as possible. He even agreed to contribute to the transfer fee that would free him from Rapid Vienna. All along, his relationship with the Austrian club deteriorated, and after the club agreed to let him go early, team officials ripped their former player in a blunt news release announcing his departure.
“He would have been … fondly remembered, but unfortunately his behavior in recent weeks has left a very stale aftertaste,” sporting director Zoran Barisic said in the release.
Fountas moved with his wife Marina and 2-year-old son, Taxi Jr., to the Washington area — his first time in the United States.
“I always wanted to come to America,” he said through the interpreter. “I had seen it in famous movies. It seemed like a fantasyland. The big countries, you see and read about. In small villages, in Greece, America is very different than what it’s really like.”
When asked his favorite American movie, he understands perfectly, smiling broadly before answering, “Fast & Furious.” In Greek, he says he has seen every sequel in the franchise except the latest.
Aside from his integration with United, Fountas has gained comfort from the small Greek-speaking community in the area, making friends at a Greek restaurant and with an employee at the Audi dealership.
“To cross the Atlantic, I had never done that before,” he said. “I’ve done it and I love everything about America. I am getting acclimated and love everything I am seeing and doing.”