BEAVERTON, Ore. — “I learned that I need to pay my taxes on time.”
Dario Zuparic doesn’t do much media. The Portland Timbers center back has been on the other side of a language barrier since moving to the United States two years ago. Back in his native Croatia, that barrier didn’t exist, but since moving to Major League Soccer, he’s been allowed to be a man of mystery. He seems to like his side of the wall.
Ahead of Saturday’s MLS Cup final, though, Zuparic agreed to an interview, though only on his terms. The idea was to get him talking about the things he’s learned from his time in America. He decided to make the most of it.
“Usually in Croatia, I don’t have to think about [taxes],” he explained. At most European clubs, players receive their net wages, with the clubs taking care of the tax element. “But here, I also don’t have to think about [taxes],” he remembers, “because my wife does.”
The answer is on brand for a player whose mystery transcends a language barrier. On a day-to-day basis, Zuparic is professional, engaging, and in his own way one of the funniest Timbers, even if he picks and chooses his spots. But there’s also a certain cool about his approach that’s kept him behind his wall. He likes setting his own terms.
“Zupa’s” lessons from his time in the U.S. are a great example. He was asked for some off the field, some on. His first lesson from on?
“I learned I am the best player on this team,” he texts, making sure he includes a laughing-face emoji. Is he being serious? Just joking around? From the other side of the wall, there’s no way to know.
Over the last two years, jokes like these have been relative rarities. They mark their own special occasions. Away from the field, Zuparic would much rather be funny than revealing, but on the field, he's stoic and focused. When he speaks up, he's directing his midfield or guiding his fellow defenders, but sarcasm doesn't really have a place when you're trying to execute. The soccer has to come first.
That approach, though, has led to results. Over his two regular seasons in Portland, the Timbers are plus-15 in goals when he's on the field. When he plays, the Timbers are averaging 0.31 more goals per 90 minutes than their opponents. At his best, the 29-year-old can shepherd a defense to heights like last year's MLS is Back Tournament title, or the six-game winning streak that has landed Portland in Saturday's MLS Cup (12pm PT, ABC, UniMás).
In a lot of ways, he is the Croatian incarnation of another Timbers center back, the now-retired Liam Ridgewell. Both are defenders first, though each offer so much more. Perhaps most prominently, they’re both great game managers. They know when to risk a line-breaking pass, jump into midfield to win a ball, or drop from their line and concede space in front. There are the dark arts, too – the times they play to the edge of the rules to exert their special kind of chaos. Ridgewell averaged a yellow card every 324.9 minutes during his first two Timbers seasons. Zuparic is averaging one every 359.3 since arriving in Portland.
And like Ridgewell, Zuparic doesn’t take anything too seriously. Part of his mystery is how, especially in the biggest games, he elevates his game without being excessively intense about it.
“Every time I’m in a final, I score a goal,” he said to Timbers executives after a training session a week ago. He was only slightly exaggerating. Zuparic scored in last year’s MLS is Back Tournament final, and when he returned to Croatia from Italy in 2017, he scored for Rijeka in the 2017 Croatian Cup final.
That was four seasons, one league, and one country ago. And who knows how many jokes. Now, in his changed surroundings, he’s found a lot of new material.
“I learned that I can still play every game without shin guards, and no one will notice,” he says. You can almost see his smile behind the word “still.” It’s not that he gets away with that in North America. Oh, no. Be it Croatia, during his time in Italy, or once he returned to Croatia, he implies, he never seems to get caught.
“I learned I shouldn’t drive my car without an American drivers’ license, but still, I am testing it just to be sure,” he says. Is this true or not? It feels like there’s no way he’ll tell.
“I also learned every meal in America has garlic in it. Or worse, cilantro.” In fairness, that one is definitely true.
When he arrived in the U.S., Zuparic told those around him that he would never do media in Croatia or Italy. He would always get a teammate to go in his place, sometimes incentivizing them to do so. It’s a shame, because as Timbers fans have learned from another European arrival, striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda, there’s something refreshing about a player who doesn’t take his time on record so seriously. Niezgoda’s found ways to show his sarcasm. Why can’t Zupa, too?
The most obvious answer to that is he doesn’t need to. Or he just doesn’t care. He may be as funny as Niezgoda, but in his style, you can see he’s the target for his own humor. Does he truly score in every final? Or never wear his shin guards? It really doesn’t matter. All that matters is you see little more Dario in each of his jokes.
Given how often his humor comes out, there’s still a lot to learn. After all, he doesn't do interviews that often. But still, on the brink of what might be the biggest game of his career, very little was out of bounds.
“I’ve learned that when you qualify for the playoffs, if you make it to the finals, you will get a trophy and one-month shorter vacation,” he says. “So, see you in two weeks for preseason.”