For most of us, life at home has been a new combination of comfort and restriction – an almost two-month test of our patience with the environments we’ve cultivated most. For others, though, that comfort level has been slightly lower, with the phrase stay-at-home providing ironic contrast in our new, COVID-19 world.
Such is the case for two of the Portland Timbers’ high-profile winter acquisitions. Six months ago, both Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Dario Zuparic were playing for clubs in their home countries: Niezgoda at Legia Warsaw in Poland; Zuparic for Rijeka in Croatia. This offseason, each took advantage of the transfer window to make the biggest moves of their careers. For Zuparic, the switch to Portland was his second venture from home, having previously spent four seasons in neighboring Italy. For Niezgoda, however, January’s switch was the first time he’d ever agreed to play beyond Poland.
“The most difficult thing for me is being alone in the house,” Niezgoda says, about his time amid the novel coronavirus. Still the second-leading scorer in this year’s Polish Ekstraklasa, the 25-year-old had been in Portland for less than two months before precautions for the novel coronavirus took hold.
“My girlfriend flew to Poland before the pandemic,” he explains. “I organize my day the best I can and try not to go crazy.”
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In that way, Niezgoda is living a life similar to ours. On the other hand, the departure of a significant other just before a health crisis, as well as his distance from home, are parallels he shares with few beyond Zuparic. Just like his new teammate, Zuparic’s first significant spell in Portland came after the team’s return from Costa Rica, in the last weeks of the Timbers’ preseason. But just like Niezgoda’s girlfriend, Zuparic’s significant other soon returned home.
“My wife left just before the corona arrived in the U.S. because she had to finish her final year of college ...,” Zuparic says when asked how his life differs from others sheltering from COVID-19. “I've been on my own ever since this started.”
In one sense, these are versions of the lives Niezgoda and Zuparic signed up for. Like the team’s other high-profile winter signings – Columbian winger Yimmi Chara and Chilean forward Felipe Mora – both are venturing into the U.S. for the first time. Each is in an English-first country for the first time, and each is still unfamiliar with Portland.
Within that group, though, the parallels are few. Chara’s unique situation has him close to family, with his older brother, Diego, having played for the Timbers since 2011. And while Mora is playing in Major League Soccer for the first time, he’d ventured far from Chile before. The Santiago-born striker had played in Mexico since the start of Liga MX’s 2017-18 season, and in coming to Portland, Mora became part of a team with a strong Spanish-speaking cohort.
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There’s nobody in Portland to speak Polish with Niezgoda. “I’m talking with my girlfriend, family and friends back home in Poland on WhatsApp,” he says, while noting “I’m also learning and improving my English.” For Zuparic, he can speak the Italian he learned in Italy with his new head coach, Giovanni Savarese, but there was little Croatian to be heard in the Timbers’ locker room. The extra level of isolation leaves Zuparic “a little depressed, because I can't leave the house.
“Every day is the same for me,” he says. “I go to training at a playground nearby, and that is the only thing that makes me happy.”
Photo: Dario Zuparic (Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers)
It’s a reminder of what the game means to players like Niezgoda and Zuparic, a need that only amplifies what they’ve temporarily lost in their sport. While their moves to Portland would always challenge them to make a different city home, life around the field could always be relied on for a level of support, even if the faces around them were new. “I can't believe how the boys received me,” Zuparic remembered of his first days with the Timbers. “The next day I went to training and felt like I had been there for years. For Niezgoda, too, “the staff and players [have been] very helpful and friendly.
“It was a very difficult beginning for me in Portland,” Niezgoda says. A heart ablation procedure in January, shortly before his transfer became official, has delayed his integration on the field. “I couldn’t train with the team for a long time, and it was annoying. I trained with the team only three or four times before the pandemic.”
Within the next weeks, that could change. Last Thursday, Timbers President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson said individualized training sessions are on the horizon, with players’ ability to return to team training centers subject to stay-at-home changes in each region. “[I]f we can get to [individualized sessions], that [is a] first step as far as optimism,” Wilkinson noted.
In that context, optimism meant Major League Soccer’s life getting back to normal. For Niezgoda and Zuparic, their optimism would transcend the field. For them, getting back to normal means not only getting their professional life on track but, for a personal life in flux, continuing an adjustment the pandemic put on pause. As that adjustment happens, their lives can regain their momentum.
“I can’t wait when we get back on the pitch,” Niezgoda says. “I remember scoring many goals in the Polish league in 2019. Now, I want to show what I can do in a Portland Timbers jersey.”