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At 22, the Portland Timbers midfielder has a lot to smile about.

The smothering heat in Cali never deterred a young Santiago Moreno. If you needed to find him, he would likely be on the tiny soccer field in his neighborhood of Potrero Grande, made up of dirt and surrounded by patches of grass.

Moreno’s soccer-obsessed friends and teammates would poke fun at him for not spending his weekends watching the sport on TV, even his beloved Manchester United in the English Premier League. “Santi,” as Moreno was and is known to friends and teammates, would respond that he preferred to be outside, playing it, with anyone who happened to be around.

“Most of my early memories came in the streets and neighborhoods with my friends,” Moreno says, speaking in Spanish. “They were moments that I didn’t think about as much as I do now.”

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Cali, Colombia
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Moreno is 22 now with his entire family in South America, including his four-year-old daughter, Ashly, whom he misses dearly. He's become one of the Timbers' most exciting young players, with five goals and seven assists so far this season. He's a player you just want to watch whenever he receives the ball.

There's magnetism in his smile too. Timbers fans get to see it most often in moments of celebration—after a goal, an assist, a group hug, or a lifting of a post-game log slice.

For his teammates and friends, the smile has a more permanent presence. Moreno can be deathly serious on the field, but joyous, even silly, off of it. It's a confident, infectious grin, hinting at a deeper well of joy.

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Moreno at training (Aug 1, 2022)

The first professional goal Moreno remembers scoring came from beyond midfield. With time winding down in América de Cali’s game against Unión Magdalena, all 22 players were in Cali’s half of the field, with Magdalena desperately searching for a late goal.

Following the opposing team’s corner kick, the ball ricocheted around the box before falling at the feet of Moreno behind the midfield line. With nobody in goal for Magdalena, the young Colombian took aim and fired from long range.

“After it, I could only think about my family and my mom,” recalls Moreno. “It was a beautiful experience and gave me confidence for the games to come.”

América de Cali was all Moreno had known. He grew up as a fan of the club and soaked in every moment from his trips to the Estadio Olímpico Pascual Guerrero –– Cali’s home ground. Moreno signed with the team in 2019.

Week after week, game after game, Moreno grew into a consistent starter. He scored double-digit goals his first season in Cali red, an experience he calls algo único —“something unique.” He occasionally heard rumblings of interest from abroad, but what kept his focus were the rhythms of training, match days, and fatherhood. The next game, the next meal with his family—those things were real.

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Moreno in Cali red

Even with his head down, his growing confidence and stats sheet brought the world to him. He had never heard of the Portland Timbers before they came knocking. But Moreno knew he wasn’t going to let the call from a distant place slip away, as difficult as it would be to leave his home and his family. He signed to the Portland Timbers’ at the age of 21, becoming the team’s first-ever Under-22 initiative signing, a roster rule designed to encourage teams to spend on young talent.

“What I kept hearing about here is that [MLS] was growing a lot,” Moreno said. “I didn’t know too much, but I have a lot of trust in myself. I have a lot of faith in myself. I felt like I had completed my time at América and coming here felt right.”

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Moreno’s first goal in green and gold came against Real Salt Lake in the 2021 Western Conference Final, his 17th game, but just fourth start. With teammates Marvin Loría and Yimmi Chará on his right and Jaroslaw Niezgoda on his left, and an MLS Cup berth on the line, Moreno didn't pass. Instead he unleashed a banger from well outside the box, rattling the frame to give the Timbers a 2-0 lead.

“I felt very good and excited,” he says. “It gave me a lot of confidence.”

If that goal showed us his belief in himself, his penalty kick goal against the Houston Dynamo in June 2022, showed us another side of him. As the stadium erupted in green smoke and unrelenting noise, Moreno beelined toward the sidelines where he danced the “Salsa Choque” with Colombian teammate Dairon Asprilla.

“We listen to a lot of music and dance a lot even at training,” Asprilla explains. “I told him to use his talent on the field. That day, he scored two goals and I saw him coming towards me, so I started dancing and he just knew.”

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Moreno dancing the "Salsa Choque" after converting a penalty kick (Jun 29 2022)

Close both on and off the field, Moreno and Asprilla first met in the team’s gym under Providence Park after Portland’s 6-2 loss against the Seattle Sounders last season. Moreno chuckles when describing his first impression of his new teammate: full of swagger with his shirt off and chest puffed out.

The pair only spoke briefly that night, but a budding relationship quickly took root. Little did Moreno realize at the time that Asprilla––who still watches his fix of Colombian soccer each weekend––already knew who he was.

“I loved watching him play because of the kind of player that he is,” says Asprilla. “The day we met was very normal because in Colombia we have heard of one another. After that day we’ve been able to share more moments together to talk about Colombia.”

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Moreno and Asprilla embrace after defeating Real Salt Lake in the 2021 Western Conference finals (Dec 4, 2021)

Thousands of miles and a host of different countries separate Moreno from the rest of his family in Colombia. Moreno misses movie nights with friends and family and home-cooked meals, especially the plates of rice, eggs, and ripe plantains his mom prepares. Most of all, he misses Ashly.

In Portland, Moreno has found compatriots. The Timbers roster now has five Colombians, including another promising 19-year-old Calí native, Juan David Mosquera, arriving soon. Brothers Diego and Yimmi Chará, and of course Asprilla, offer advice and keep an open ear for their young Colombian compatriot.

“It hasn’t been easy, especially the first few months, because I have always been with my mom,” Moreno says. “But my teammates have helped over time.”

“On my end, it has been more about telling [Santi] what I’ve been through here,” says Asprilla. “I’ve had great moments, and also not so great ones. I’ve tried to share that with him, to make sure he doesn’t make bad decisions.”

To ease his homesickness, Moreno speaks with family every day on WhatsApp and looks forward to whenever his family members travel to Portland to see him play. They have been to Portland twice this season and Moreno believes his mom will return soon.

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Asprilla and Moreno in Toronto (August 13, 2022)
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These days Moreno’s performances have made him a shoo-in for head coach Giovanni Savarese’s starting lineups. He dreams of playing in Europe one day, but he takes nothing for granted. Like he did at América de Cali, Moreno keeps his head down, works hard, and whenever possible, breaks out in dance.

And of course, there's his smile: joyous and also knowing. There's so much more to come, it says.

Sé que tengo que tomar sacrificios, says Moreno. Por el cual algún día, tendré recompensa.

“I know that I have to make sacrifices. One day there will be a reward.”

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