A chat with Alejandro Moreno over Venezuelan food
I turned the conversation into a feature that ran in the paper today, but after the jump, loyal blog readers, is a transcript of the full interview.
What was your reaction when you heard you were going to come to Columbus? Did you have any preconceptions about the city?
No, not at all. It was more of a concern about my family. I have a wife and a little guy, and we had a comfortable situation in Houston where we had a house and she had a nice job, and he was in school there, so we were comfortable there. But it’s part of our job, and it’s part of our profession to retrace our reality of what we do. And so in coming to Columbus, I’d only been here to play here. We’d come in and out. We’d come on a Friday and leave on a Sunday, and we don’t really get to see the city. So I didn’t really know what to expect. But it seemed like a nice enough place, and certainly after a couple months that I’ve been here we like it here. We have a house, and we’re settled in pretty well, and we’re pretty comfortable.
Were you surprised about anything in Columbus?
I didn’t know how big or how small the city is, but for us the size is perfect. It’s not too big—it’s not overwhelmingly big. And it’s certainly not that small. There’s no traffic to speak of, at least from my perspective anyway. I’ve heard people that complain about the traffic, and coming from bigger cities like Los Angeles and Houston, it’s actually very nice that your commute doesn’t take any longer than 30 minutes. I’m pretty happy about that. I think it’s a nice place with character, and older place, but one that there are certainly a lot of places around the city that have a lot of character or have something unique about them.
I didn’t realize until I was reading your bio that you had played college soccer in the US. How did you decide to leave Venezuela and come to college here?
It was an opportunity that came about, and it really opened the doors to me to continue to further my soccer career and at the same time get a quality education. To be quite honest with you, the main goal for me was to get an education, and as time went by in college and I realized that Major League Soccer was a real possibility and my parents realized that it was a real possibility, then we went after it pretty passionately. And really, things went step by step. As I kept playing well in college and interest kept growing in Major League Soccer, I felt that it was a real possibility for me.
I’m not that familiar with the college game. Is it fairly common for foreign players to enter the college game?
I think it’s fairly common in that you get the opportunity to continue to pursue your soccer career as well as to get an education. In Venezuela, for example, you get to a point where you have to choose. Either you go after your dreams of becoming a professional soccer player or you choose to go the route of education and whatever else. I think the NCAA does a good job, not only in college soccer but many other sports, where you continue to play at a competitive level, continue to develop, and at the same time you pursue a career and education. The reality is that most of us don’t become professional athletes, and only a few of us are fortunate enough to get this opportunity. But for those four years, you get an education and then you play soccer, and you really think if those are the last four years you’re going to play soccer competitively, then you want to make the most of it.
Was that your mindset coming in, that college would probably be the end of the line for your playing career?
I mean, by the time I came into college, MLS soccer had been around for three or four years. I thought it was a possibility and certainly something you dreamed that may happen in the future, but to be quite honest, you sort of worry about what’s going on with your team at school and what’s going on with your schoolwork. Once the idea of perhaps becoming a professional soccer player becomes something you can touch, then you get more interested in it. But up until that time, you think it’s a possibility, but you’re not really thinking about it too much unless it’s something that is really serious.
At this point you’ve made some appearances with your national team. I would imagine yours is not the route most people take to get to the Venezuelan national team.
No, not at all. And I think in some ways it makes it a little bit more difficult for me because a lot of guys that are with the national team, they’ve played together in youth national teams, they’ve played against each other at many different levels, and they’ve played against each other in the Venezuelan league. They certainly know of each other, and they’re contemporary with each other, while from my perspective I’ve sort of been an outsider if you know what I mean. I’ve sort of come the long way around to the national team. I’ve made my career here, and because of my success here I’ve attracted the attention of the national team in Venezuela. So it’s kind of difficult to make the transition and go back to Venezuela because really people don’t know much about you and don’t know you well enough to understand that, “Hey, maybe this guy plays a little bit, and maybe he can do some good things on the field.”
What impression do players from Venezuela have of MLS?
From what I have gathered in talking to other people with the national team, they’re skeptical about the level of play in Major League Soccer, but yet if you put a contract in front of them and the real possibility of coming to play in the US, they would sign it right away. I think there are things that Major League Soccer does much better than many leagues in South America, if not better than most leagues in South America. The organization, obviously, is much better. The infrastructure, stadiums, logistical issues such as traveling I think is done much better, in a much more responsible way. But I think that has a lot to do with the culture of the way things are done here and the way things are done in South America. To be quite honest, I believe this league has grown exponentially over the last four or five years, and interestingly enough, I feel that my career has grown exponentially over that same period of time. So I feel that I’ve grown with the league. I came into the league on draft day in 2002, and where we are now as to where we were then, I think the league has jumped in leaps and bounds in terms of positive growth. And I think my career as well has shown that to where I’ve grown also in a positive manner.
Do you think the signing of somebody like Guillermo Barros Schelotto is something that legitimizes the league for people?
I think it gives the league credibility, and it puts our league in different markets other than the US because now you are broadcasting games internationally, and news and notes of what happens in this league becomes international news. Signings like Guillermo, like Beckham, I think they can only help because they just bring more attention to the league. It’s now up to us, those of us that are part of this league, to present our product in such a way that now it becomes more appealing to most people. We want people to come to the games, but we also want them to come back to the games. That’s the trick, and that really depends on the product that we put on the field. If people are excited about what we’re doing, and they’re excited about the results that we’re producing on the field, they’ll come back. And that’s part of the growth of US soccer as a whole.
Speaking of putting a good product on the field, since you got traded to Columbus, the Crew’s been playing much better. What do you think has been the cause of the turnaround as far as finally getting results?
Obviously there is an element of good fortune in specific situations in the game, but overall I believe the team now understands that we are capable of doing good things on the field. The fact that we’ve gotten a couple good results gives the team confidence and understanding that, Hey, we are capable of not only putting a good product on the field, but we’re capable of achieving some things in our conference and getting positive results consistently. I think that has a lot to do with the personality of some of the guys that have taken leadership roles within the teams.
So what do you think of the food so far? Is it authentic?
Yeah, it’s pretty good. The shredded beef is pretty tasty. I love black beans. I usually put sugar in my black beans, but that’s a personal thing. And it’s certainly a change from what I eat on a daily basis around here. It’s good to know that there’s a Venezuelan restaurant around. But it’s pretty good—I like that the shredded beef is nice and moist and nice and flavorful.
I imagine there were probably Venezuelan restaurants in the other cities you played in.
There was one in Houston, and I went there often enough. It wasn’t close to my house, but I made an effort to go there every once in a while just to get back to the things I like to do and I like to eat. It also helps that my wife likes this kind of food. She’s from North Carolina, but she likes this kind of food, so it’s not an imposition.
Alive photographer Will Shilling chimes in: Coach let you eat that many carbs?
After practice, yeah. Gotta recover! I don’t know about the fried carbs… Yeah, my wife loves these (plantains). We call them plátanos.
Those are in my favorite dish here, patacón.
That’s actually the Columbian name for that dish. In Venezuela we call it tostón. And the plátanos, I usually eat them with white cheese. We eat a lot of cheese in Venezuela as well.
When you first left Venezuela and came to North Carolina for college, what food did you miss the most?
You know, it’s not that I miss this sort of stuff. I like it, and when I eat it, I really enjoy it. But when I came here, it was sort of, kind of flicking the switch, you know? Things were going to be different, and I wasn’t going to have the things that I’ve had around my whole life, and you just kind of go with it. Of course, if you have the opportunity to eat this kind of stuff then you’re pretty excited about it. But I wouldn’t say I miss a lot of things. Obviously you miss your family, and you miss having meals with your family, and obviously those meals would be this sort of stuff.
So it’s more that you miss eating an arepa with your family than you actually miss eating arepas?
Correct. Now, there’s Venezuelan people that an arepa is a staple of their meal; they would do anything to have an arepa. It’s actually not that difficult, but you gotta have the right kind of flour. That’s the difficult part, finding the flour. They had it in Houston. I looked for it over here.
Have you checked the Latin groceries and stuff?
I haven’t investigated it that much. But in Houston, for example, you go into the Wal-Mart Super Center, go into the Latin section and you’ll find it. You can’t go into the regular Kroger grocery store—that’s a waste of time there. They’ll have the Mexican kind of flour, maseca or whatever, and it’s not the same. But that’s another misnomer is that people think all Spanish speakers eat Mexican food or that we eat some variation of Mexican food, and we don’t. There are Mexican food restaurants in Venezuela. That’s not part of our diet.
So what part of town are you living in?
Lewis Center, north of 270, right by 23. Close to the Polaris Mall.
How did you decide to move up there?
For one, I live sort of the family life kind of thing, so I wanted a place that was kind of away from Downtown and had a yard and that sort of stuff. I’m more of a suburbs sort of guy anyway. And to be quite honest with you, when I go home from training or from the games or I come back from a trip after having played a game on a Saturday or whatever, I want to get away. I want to spend time with my family and really maximize that as much as I can and do our own thing. And then once it’s time to concentrate again and focus on soccer—so you can immerse yourself in both things 100 percent.
I was always surprised how many Crew players live north of town when Obetz is so far south. It seems like it would be such a commute, but I guess with the lack of traffic it’s not a problem.
With the lack of traffic, I’m like, 30 minutes I’m in Obetz. I can’t stand traffic. That’s why I couldn’t stand it in LA. It’s crazy… You like the dinner, eh? Have some of the arepa, man. (We split the arepa, me eating with knife and fork, him eating it like a sandwich) This is the make or break right here…
Oh, you’re supposed to eat it more like a sandwich?
Yeah, you’re supposed to eat it with your hands. Now, this is more a tostada. There are ways to fix the arepa, and this is more of a tostada style. But it has nothing to do with a Mexican tostada. I think what they do with this is they put it on the griddle, and somehow they just kind of put some weight on it, one side and then the other side. It’s still very good… The arepa is actually part of the pabellón, the main Venezuelan dish. See how Mexican people always have their meal, and they have tortillas on the side? Well, we have our meal, and arepas are part of that meal as well. Whatever meal you’re having, you have an arepa laying around, you just open it up and stuff that in there.