After scoring two masterful goals to lead Loudoun County to the Virginia 4A North region title last week, James Moreno slung a duffel bag over his broad shoulders and waded through a throng of adoring fans. It was the Raiders’ first region title in as long as anyone could remember, and before Moreno reached the team bus, two young boys got his attention.
“Hey James!,” one yelled, “You’re Messi!”
Moreno turned and smiled at the boys. It wasn’t the first time he had been compared to an older soccer star. He is the son of Jaime Moreno, the D.C. United legend and third all-time leading scorer in Major League Soccer history, and sometimes in the hallways of the Leesburg school kids will still ask him what it’s like to be born into soccer royalty.
But when Moreno finally got onto the bus last Friday, he knew he was cutting his own path as a young man. Two years ago, he made a bold and unpopular decision of leaving D.C. United’s Academy to return to high school soccer. Last year, he figured out for himself that he had to devote more attention to his body after a season plagued by injuries. This year he has formed his own identity on the field, scoring 28 goals and leading the Raiders to the 4A state tournament in Lynchburg. Loudoun County faces Grafton in Friday’s semifinals at Liberty University.
“There’s always been expectations for me to try my hardest and want to succeed in this sport just because of who my dad was. But I just look at it as, if I enjoy doing it, I do it for myself,” Moreno said. “This year I’ve really seen my confidence come back.”
Moreno’s cellphone was broken earlier this week, which may have turned out to be an advantage for a player intensely focused on preparation. Loudoun County’s coach, Arni Sepehri, has long said that in order for his team to win a state title, it must train and play like a small college team.
He certainly has a college prospect in Moreno, who during Wednesday’s training session was dropping corner kicks into the 18-yard box under Sepehri’s precise direction. The two have benefited mutually from their relationship. Exhausted from commuting 80 miles every day for academy practices in the District and in need of a renewed confidence on the pitch, Moreno did what so many players in the area would never dare: He left the academy and returned to his high school team before his junior season. At that point, Sepehri was working to establish a winning culture at the school, one finely tuned on small details on and off the field.
Moreno’s talent was undeniable; he can hold the ball as well as anyone in the area, and his touch reminds many of his father. But his body kept breaking down last year. He had the flu on the day he injured his hamstring, and after he tried to play through it in May, Sepehri shut him down. The two had a heart to heart about his fitness and diet.
“It didn’t hit me until the first injury that I had to do something,” Moreno said. “I put working out first before everything else.”
Moreno decided in order to truly transform himself as a player, he would first need to transform his body. He started running, biking and lifting five days a week; he signed up for spinning classes three times a week, worked with bungee cords and became a regular during Loudoun County’s summer scrimmages. He reformed his diet, which was a difficult transition since he had been used to always just eating what was in the house for him and his five sisters.
The results have been staggering. Not only has Moreno played the entire season without injury, but his play has flourished. He led his team to 20 wins and a district title; he has scored at least one goal in every postseason match, and of the 28 goals, nine have come in the past five matches.
“I think he has a gift that nobody else has,” Loudoun County senior forward Jon Mackey said. “I’ve never seen really anybody as natural on the ball as James is.”
The influence of his father has not been lost on him. Moreno was a regular in the D.C. United clubhouse as a kid, and the one time he traveled with his father was to the MLS All-Star game in 2006. When Moreno scored the goal to become the MLS all-time leading scorer, his son was brought onto the field and received the ball.
Those were precious moments, but Jaime worried about the pressure those moments would bring to his son once he started playing. He doesn’t see himself in his son when he watches him at Loudoun County; their styles and speed are different, but Jaime believes James has better technique than he did when he was a young player. Beyond the goals, one of his best accomplishments this season has been James’s ability to cast aside the shadow of his father and forge his own as a player.
“Since he was little, he had the technique. I never had a doubt that he was a special kid. As a father you always want the best for your kid . . . even though I felt like I didn’t do a good enough job working with him, because I was trying to give him more freedom and just let him be a kid,” Jaime Moreno said. “He went through a difficult stage where he was growing and he felt there was a little pressure on him.”
Whatever pressure there was, Moreno has shaken it this season. He plans to look for professional opportunities in the United States or overseas after he graduates from high school, although he hasn’t ruled out college.
His family will travel with Moreno this weekend to Lynchburg. Moreno’s father often tells him if he truly enjoys soccer, he should play for himself. James keeps the ball from his father’s historic goal in a case at home, and he will be looking to add to it this weekend.
“There’s a lot of memories. The one that sticks to my mind, probably will for the rest of my life, is when he retired,” Moreno said. “One Moreno era is down, and another one I’m trying to start up.”