CLEARWATER BEACH, Fla. — Each day, as he chased his soccer dreams, playing a sport that has also blessed his father and two brothers, Junior Moreno struggled to detach himself from the terrible reality infecting his homeland.
Moreno is Venezuelan, and like almost everyone in the South American country of some 31 million, he has felt and seen the effects of a historic economic crisis.
Endless lines at gas stations. Empty grocery stores. A rise in violent crime. Families begging on the streets. Malnourished children. Hospitals in need of medicine. Young girls selling their bodies.
“It’s very difficult being a professional athlete and have to be at training every day and being very focused on that aspect of your life but also have to worry about where you’re going to get your food and your basic needs,” Moreno said through an interpreter this week. “To have that stress on top of everything is challenging, to keep yourself disciplined on your job.”
As a new member of D.C. United, Moreno has physically left behind Venezuela’s ills, exchanging the anxiety of everyday life for the white-sand beaches here outside the MLS team’s hotel at training camp. But as a proud Venezuelan, one who debuted for the national team last summer and scored days later, the 24-year-old midfielder cannot completely separate his professional joy and personal anguish.
His family was better off than many, he said, but the suffering was all around him. He said he would wait in long lines for chicken or beef and often go weeks without it.
“It’s a situation where we are all are just trying to make it to the next month,” he said. “We are all surviving.”
Rising wages have made MLS more competitive in attracting players from abroad.
Even before the crisis, Venezuelan players were more affordable than, say, those from Colombia or Argentina.
Venezuelans are making their mark in MLS, with Atlanta’s Josef Martinez scoring 19 goals in 20 matches last year, Real Salt Lake’s Jefferson Savarino posting six goals and five assists and the Portland Timbers hiring Giovanni Savarese as head coach this winter.
And despite being the only country from the South American confederation known as CONMEBOL to never play in the World Cup, Venezuela has made strides. Last year, a nation known more for nurturing baseball players than soccer talent advanced to the Under-20 World Cup final in South Korea before losing to England, 1-0.
The national crisis, though, is also nudging players to leagues such as MLS.
“There is no escaping the fact that the realities of the situation currently in Venezuela — socially, politically, economically — affects every aspect of life, including professional sports,” ESPN analyst Alejandro Moreno, a former MLS and Venezuelan national team forward, told MLSsoccer.com. (He and Junior Moreno are not related.)
Junior Moreno said his move was made for multiple reasons.
“It’s a great opportunity on the football side, and I’m grateful for it. Coming to the United States, I’ve visited many times and am comfortable with how things work here. It was a big attraction to come here, to have a more stable life, more stable salary.”
Moreno’s sisters live in Tampa and Miami respectively, and his father-in-law is in Orlando.
Junior was in Utah last June for his national team debut in a friendly against the United States and, early in the 1-1 draw, his header set up Jose Manuel Velazquez’s goal. Four days later, he scored against Ecuador in Boca Raton, Fla. In the fall, he started in World Cup qualifiers against Argentina and Uruguay and entered as a sub against Paraguay.
MLS teams took notice. And last month, United purchased him from Zulia, a club based in Maracaibo, for an undisclosed transfer fee.
Moreno is a central midfielder vying for a starting job in a deep-lying position or a more advanced role. United’s preseason opener is Thursday against Swedish champion Malmo in Bradenton, Fla. [Watch live stream below.]
Moreno is among three Latin American midfielders to sign with United this winter, joining Ulises Segura (Costa Rica) and Yamil Asad (Argentina). The club also added, via trades, forward Darren Mattocks (Jamaica), defenders Frederic Brillant (France) and Oniel Fisher (Jamaica), and goalkeeper David Ousted (Denmark).
Moreno’s family ties to the sport run deep. His Argentine-born father, Carlos Horacio Moreno, parlayed a modest playing career into a long coaching career in Venezuela. He guided the national team at the 1989 Copa America in Brazil and has enjoyed stints with domestic clubs Tachira and Zulia and is currently guiding Portuguesa.
While at Zulia, the elder Moreno coached Junior and another son, Carlos, now 27. Another son, Marcelo, 23, plays for Portuguesa. All are midfielders.
“From a very young age, I always had a ball at my feet,” Junior said. “We always watched. We lived football. We lived that lifestyle.”
The family lived in San Cristobal, a city of almost 300,000 in the mountainous western region near the border with Colombia. The sons were regular visitors to the training grounds and stadiums, particularly during school vacations.
“I always wanted to be a professional because I was around it so much,” Junior said. “I’ve been very lucky to have a father in that position at every stage of my career, giving me advice and encouragement to keep going and follow the right path. He is a great example for me.”
The father is proud of his middle son.
“Junior is a boy who prepared for this, who lives from this,” Carlos Horacio Moreno told Venezuelan website Panorama. “I have met many professionals who have put absolutely everything into it, and I have to put Junior on this list.”
United Coach Ben Olsen has noticed a coach’s influence on his Venezuelan import.
“I can see he has been around the game for a long time. He’s watched the game. He understands the game. He has a spatial awareness and a composure, his positioning and ability to adapt and read off others. He just does the little things right.”
And as he integrates himself into a new team and new league in a new country, Moreno has kept Venezuela in his heart and mind.
“It’s my home, my country,” he said. “The situation is very difficult and everyone hopes it ends very soon.”