PORTLAND, Ore. - Norberto Paparatto is not your typical pro athlete.
Coming out of high school, the Portland Timbers defender had yet to sign a professional contract and, for a player of his age in a country like Argentina, the prospect of signing one seemed slim. So Paparatto did what any sensible person would do; he went to school.
By the time he finally signed his first professional contract with Argentine Primera Division club Lanús in 2005, Paparatto had already spent two years studying radiology and two years working in a clinic.
"I left the radiology stuff behind," Paparatto explained recently through an interpreter. "I didn't have time to do it; soccer is my passion. It's my career now."
Paparatto's soccer career, which began in 2005 with Lanús, featured a long stint with Argentine club Tigre and appearances in the Copa Sudamerica. Playing in the U.S. was likely the last thing on Paparatto's mind.
When he first heard about the offer from the Portland Timbers, Paparatto had no idea what or where Portland even was. He says that it wasn't until he spoke with current Timbers teammate and fellow Argentine Diego Valeri that he realized what an opportunity he'd been given.
"After I spoke to Diego, I started doing my own research and reading about Portland. Everything that I read sounded really enticing."
But as beautiful as Portland sounded to Paparatto, a part of him was still unsure. He had never left Argentina before and he would be leaving his family and friends behind. What's more, he didn't speak a word of English and knew nothing about the style and level of soccer played in MLS.
"The first six months [in Portland] were tough on a personal and professional level," recalled Paparatto of his 2014 arrival. "I think maybe even the first couple games that I played, it took me a little bit to get used to playing style, the league. But more than anything, it was missing my family, missing my friends. Even though they came to visit, it's not the same and you miss them when they're gone."
Paparatto says that as hard as it was to be away from home, he found it equally challenging to adapt to MLS and a style of play that differs markedly from what he was accustomed to in Argentina.
Paparatto explained that in Argentina, central defenders are much more aggressive and try to physically take charge of the game. This style, he thinks, is impossible in a league like MLS, where fouls are called more frequently. It means that he has to remain aware of his level of physicality.
Paparatto, though, has grown more comfortable with the league and it's shown so far in the 2015 season. Since stepping into the starting lineup against D.C. United in May, Paparatto has solidified a spot in the team's defensive rotation and helped the Timbers earn three clean sheets and four wins. Including his starting XI nod against Seattle in the U.S. Open Cup, the Timbers have won all five matches that Paparatto has started.
Away from the pitch, Paparatto and wife Cecilia have embraced their new home.
"She already has two degrees in Argentina and she's getting a Master's here at the same time," a proud Paparatto said, beaming. "I think the move coming here together has brought us closer because we're both evolving here as people."
Together, the couple has traveled around the region and marveled at its great natural diversity.
"We really love the green spaces and going out and drinking a mate [tea] together in these beautiful spaces," he said. "The beaches, the rivers, the mountains—we've explored it all and we really love it."
Still, Paparatto misses Argentina and wishes that he could enjoy the same lifestyle he has in Portland back home.
"I love my country, absolutely!" he said. "And if I could, I would take the security of the United States to Argentina. I think it would be a beautiful thing."
For now, though, Paparatto is happy to keep playing the sport that he loves in a place that he's happy to call his second home.
"I love the town. I love the people. I also love our fans. They're so passionate and they breathe soccer here, so it's fantastic. I'm really comfortable and I love Portland."