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‘The country needs to change’: Venezuela is on Junior Moreno’s mind at D.C. United camp

D.C. United midfielder Junior Moreno, shown heading the ball vs. Seattle in a match last June. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

CLEARWATER BEACH, Fla. — From this pretty vantage point on Florida’s Gulf Coast, safely separated from arctic conditions up north and cocooned in D.C. United’s preseason training camp, there are moments when Junior Moreno can push aside the escalating political crisis in his native Venezuela.

Sun is abundant and breezes are soft, though it’s been cooler than normal. United is about a month from kicking off a highly anticipated MLS season. There are new teammates with whom to bond, muscles to condition and tactics to master.

But as he enters his second year as a starting defensive midfielder for United, Moreno is also thinking about his countrymen and his country, which, already debilitated by meteoric inflation, food shortages and social unrest, is confronting a struggle for power between the embattled president, Nicolás Maduro, and the self-declared interim president, Juan Guaidó.

Venezuelan officials seek to block U.S.-supported opposition leader from leaving country, freeze his assets

The United States thrust itself into the emergency by recognizing Guaidó as the legitimate leader and applying financial pressure on the Maduro regime by freezing assets of the state-run petroleum industry.

From afar — first in Washington as United camp opened last week and now in Florida for the serious stretch of preparations — Moreno has kept tabs on the tense situation.

Venezuelans living in the U.S. gathered Jan. 23 in cities across the country to protest against Nicolás Maduro and back opposition leader Juan Guaidó. (Video: The Washington Post)

He is not a deeply political person, but “what I can say and what I can support is, the country needs to change,” Moreno said through an interpreter after Tuesday’s practice. “What has been happening lately gives me a good feeling of hope, that there will be changes for the better. What I can do is hope for that to happen and to keep my thoughts with everybody who has been in that fight for a long time.”

Moreno, 25, says his extended family in San Cristobal, 500 miles southwest of the capital Caracas, is fine. Since the holidays, his parents have been visiting relatives in Argentina — his soccer-coaching father was born there — and have yet to return.

Moreno said he is in regular communication with family, including brothers Carlos and Marcelo, who play professional soccer in Venezuela.

Thanks in part to their father’s long coaching career, the Morenos are better off than many in Venezuela. But that does not insulate them from the daily challenges caused by a failing economy and unstable government.

Last winter, shortly after joining United from Venezuelan club Zulia, Junior Moreno described the suffering and cruelty he had witnessed.

The presidential crisis has compounded the anxiety gripping the country of 32 million, many of whom have fled to seek safety and a better life.

“People are scared, worried, nervous — all of those emotions,” he said. “But even more than that, there is hope that the situation will be resolved and the country can go back to the way it used to be.”

Living in the United States, Moreno said he has gained greater perspective on what is transpiring. At United’s beachside hotel here, he watches TV news — though he is a little shy speaking English, he understands most of it — and scours online sources and social media.

“It’s pretty difficult to watch,” he said. “People are uncertain about the whole situation. Hopefully very soon, the situation can be resolved — for the people who are living there and haven’t had the resources for a good life, and for the people who left. They love their country and hopefully they can come back.”

During the offseason, Moreno visited his parents in Argentina but did not return to Venezuela.

He remains a part of the Venezuelan national team, one of about a half-dozen players from the senior squad employed in MLS. The star of the group is Atlanta striker Josef Martinez, who last year set the single-season scoring record and won MVP honors en route to the MLS Cup trophy.

La Vinotinto, or red wine, as the team is known, will represent the country again in a March 22 friendly against Lionel Messi and Argentina in Madrid. This summer, Venezuela will face Peru, host Brazil and Bolivia in the group stage of Copa America, the famed South American championship.

Until then, his thoughts will rest with United ahead of the March 3 opener against Atlanta and with a shattered country.

Reflecting on his roots and what has occurred in Venezuela since he moved to the United States, Moreno said: “It’s hard. I have a lot of family and friends there, and they are living the situation. Before I left, it was not great but better than it is now. Everyone has hope.”

United notes: The team enjoyed its first day on natural grass Tuesday after training indoors in the D.C. area and, because of heavy rain here, on artificial turf Monday. . . . Coach Ben Olsen said almost all players in camp will play 45 minutes in Saturday’s preseason opener against second-division Bethlehem (Pa.) Steel. . . . Defender Colton Storm, Sporting Kansas City’s first-round pick in 2017, is in D.C. camp, seeking to earn a contract. . . . Olsen has sheered off his lumberjack beard. “I feel 10 years younger,” he said.

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