VALENCIA, Spain (Reuters) - Levante full back Shaquell Moore took the daunting step to move from the United States to Spain on his own aged 17 and while the journey has not been without its pitfalls, the gamble is slowly paying off.
After three years toiling in the lower leagues, Moore became only the fourth American to play in La Liga after Kasey Keller, Jozy Altidore and Oguchi Onyewu and this month found himself facing Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez when Levante visited Barcelona.
The runaway league leaders won 3-0 but struggling Levante and Moore put up an admirable fight.
“It was a dream come true playing against Barcelona in the Nou Camp against the best players in the world, it’s an experience I’ll never forget and something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life,” Moore told Reuters.
The 21-year-old, known as “Shaq”, was used to playing to crowds of around 100 people in the Tercera Division and was suddenly thrown into the 99,000 capacity Nou Camp against the best players in the world.
“It’s definitely a big difference, just the atmosphere being in the Nou Camp, the fans there are crazy, it’s a very hostile environment, but playing against Messi and Suarez, these guys are the best players in the world so it was definitely a learning experience,” he said.
Moore came agonisingly close to stamping his name on the game when the ball fell his way in the Barcelona area in the second half when the score was 2-0, but he was denied a first Liga goal by towering German goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
“I didn’t really sleep well after that,” he said.
“I was just thinking if I would have scored that things would be a lot different but everything happens for a reason and hopefully next time I’ll put it away.”
Moore grew up in the town of Powder Springs, Georgia in an environment where soccer was a minority sport but as his father Wendell was a former professional, playing internationally for Trinidad and Tobago, he spent his Saturday mornings as a child watching La Liga and the Premier League.
His favourite players were Ronaldinho, Messi, Dani Alves and Yaya Toure and he supported Manchester City after spending two weeks on trial with the Premier League club.
Moore was eventually picked by the U.S. national team’s youth set-up, which took him to the prestigious IMG sports academy in Florida where the likes of tennis players Serena Williams, Andre Agassi and footballers Landon Donovan and Altidore had thrived.
He was soon snapped up by Major League Soccer side FC Dallas but he did not spend long there, deciding to try his luck across the Atlantic on Spain’s east coast.
“You go through a lot of emotions, thinking should I go or not? You have to leave home but from a young age, but I knew I wanted to play in Europe at some stage so I figured the earlier the better,” Moore said.
His main obstacle to settling in was getting to grips with the Spanish language, which he has since mastered.
“Anywhere you go that’s the hardest thing to pick up because if you can’t communicate with anyone it can be a bit difficult but once I learnt that everything came smooth,” he said.
Just as Moore was settling down at third-tier Huracan Valencia the club were kicked out of the league for financial irregularities, leaving him stranded. He escaped to Real Oviedo’s reserve side, returning to Valencia six months later to sign for Levante.
Moore is one of a minority of Americans to play in Europe, along with Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron, Fulham’s Tim Ream, Newcastle United’s Deandre Ledlin and Borussia Dortmund winger Christian Pulisic.
“He (Pulisic) is the example everyone’s following (showing people) it’s possible you can make that jump. I’m definitely proud of him, definitely supporting him and hopefully he can keep on going,” Moore said.
Moore knew Pulisic from the U.S. team’s youth set-up and after captaining his country at Under-17 level and playing at the Under-20 World Cup, his next goal is to make his full international debut.
With opponents like Messi, Suarez, Antoine Griezmann and Cristiano Ronaldo, it is hard to think of a better place for Moore to keep learning.
“Sooner or later it will come but I’ve just got to be patient, keep on working and keep on focussing on getting better every day. Playing in one of the best leagues in the world always gives you the opportunity to rise,” he said.
“I’m just trying to get better in all the aspects of my game. Being in the best league in the world and playing against top players always helps.”
Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Ed Osmond