Over the past month, D.C. United’s Junior Moreno was away on international duty, playing with Venezuela at the Copa America. It’s a tournament that the Black-and-Red have some history with, as both Steven Birnbaum and Alvaro Saborio participated in the Copa America Centenario, the anniversary edition of the competition. And United’s current head coach, Ben Olsen, played for Bob Bradley’s USA side back in 2007, when the Americans bowed out in the group stage.
But with all due respect to those three, none were quite as pivotal to their side as Moreno was to La Vinotinto in their run to the quarterfinals in this tournament. The defensive midfielder started all four games, logging 347 of a possible 360 minutes, as Venezuela lost to Argentina in the quarterfinals.
Despite the defeat, Moreno, who returned to United this week and could possibly play today against FC Dallas, was upbeat about his first Copa America experience, and what the future might hold for a young Venezuela side.
“Really happy, really excited about my first Copa America, and playing those games with Venezuela,” Moreno told B&RU this week through a translator. “We played some good games, some important games, and we were able to qualify for the [quarterfinals]. That was exciting for us.”
Venezuela was the youngest team in the tournament, relying heavily on players like Moreno to get out of a group that contained Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. The relative inexperience might have worked against Venezuela in the defeat to Argentina, but provides a bright outlook for the South American side, with another Copa America and World Cup qualifying to look forward to next year.
“We were the youngest team in the tournament, and there was a lot of things that we needed to correct and improve on,” added Moreno. “And we left we the feeling that if we had played a little better, we could have gone even further. But excited for the future, and excited to be part of it.”
His club coach, who played twice in that 2007 edition, was equally excited to be able to watch Moreno excel on the international stage, even if it meant that Moreno missed several games for the Black-and-Red.
“If you can look past the selfish side of missing them, needing them here, because they are big pieces to the group, it’s wonderful to see these guys playing on that world stage and being successful,” Olsen said earlier this week. “It’s great for the player, it’s great for the club. I’ve been through most of those competitions as a player, and I know how meaningful they are to the individual, what great experiences they are.”
Should Moreno line up against Dallas, he would have only missed two league games for the Black-and-Red during his absence. Though United also entered and were knocked out of the US Open Cup at the same time, United weren’t hit quite as hard with Moreno’s absence as they could have been, had Venezuela made their way into the semifinal or final of the Copa America.
And Venezuela probably thought they had a decent chance of making a deep run, especially when lining up against Argentina in the quarterfinals. Back in a friendly in Madrid in March, La Vinotinto defeated Lionel Messi and Argentina 3-1. But Argentina caught Venezuela off guard with their tactics, denying Moreno and his teammates a chance at Brazil in the semifinals.
“In this game in particular, we weren’t able to play as well as we did before, for a couple of different reasons. We had possession, we were passing well, but Argentina respected us quite a bit, which surprised us,” Moreno said of the 2-0 defeat. “We thought they were going to pressure us. They have a lot of good players, we thought they were going to play another way. Having that change in tactics led us to not being on our game.”
Whether or not he starts on Thursday against the Hoops is still up in the air. Josef Martinez, who didn’t play as prominent of a role during the tournament, was not in the lineup on Wednesday for Atlanta United. So Olsen might choose to ease Moreno back in, with the long travel back from Brazil after Friday’s loss for Venezuela.
Nonetheless, he was welcomed back with open arms, especially by his midfield partner Russell Canouse, who like many of his teammates, will reap the benefits of having Moreno back in the starting lineup.
“He understands the game well, when to close out passing lanes, and how to work off of my movements, and same with me working off of his movements,” Canouse said on Tuesday of Moreno. “He’ll provide much needed compactness in the middle. It’s exciting to have him back after the good tournament he had.”