When Jorge Perlaza first joined the Portland Timbers, he was very much alone. Being the only member of the team who did not have a basic understanding of English, it was an intimidating experience. If you take language out of the equation, he says, you can adapt to just about anything anywhere. But the language barrier makes every aspect of life more difficult.
So Perlaza knows quite a lot about what Hanyer Mosquera and Jose Adolfo Valencia are going through right now. "It's going to be difficult because obviously they don't understand the coaches' instructions, which is what we went through last year," Perlaza said through an interpreter.
"To learn the language is very important because you don't feel like you ... you don't know what people are saying," said Perlaza. He added, laughing, "It's obviously very hard to communicate that way."
"I can't imagine going into a new setup and trying to speak a foreign language on the first day," says Coach John Spencer. (He apparently doesn't consider his Scottish dialect to be a foreign language, his performance as a flight attendant in last year's Alaska Airlines commercial notwithstanding.) While he sympathizes with the Colombians' plight, he says good players can settle in any environment.
"Once the ball comes out, it's the same rules, the same size of field, 11 v 11, so I don't think there will be any problem with it. It's just better to get them to speak the language so they can mix with their teammates better and keep a nice tight group like we already have." He says they will participate in English classes three days a week, just like Chara and Perlaza do currently.
Mosquera and Valencia both say they are eager to learn English and adapt to life in the US. "I like challenges, and I thought that this would be a really good challenge for me just to be here," says Mosquera.
"Chara told me about how beautiful the city is"
Mosquera talks at length about all the wonderful things Chara told him about Portland, helping him make the decision to sign with the Timbers. Among what I'm sure was a litany of things to like about Portland, he says Chara told him:
- "that the city is beautiful"
- "that the environment here where we play is really exciting."
- "that it's a wonderful experience to play in front of a full house, with all the noise and the singing and everything."
- "how very well organized the league and the team in particular are."
It's common for us to hear that kind of praise, and often we assume they're just saying what they know the fans want to hear. On the other hand, no thanks to "Portlandia," it's also easy for us to take for granted all the positives Portland has to offer. Says Chara, "I like the peace, the tranquility of the city, and the respect that people feel for us."
That bit about respect is a big deal. Even as much as the Timbers Army draws some of its inspiration from Latin America, Colombian soccer culture is very different from soccer culture in Portland. Though none of the players say so directly, reading into their comments reveals a feeling that the experience in Portland is much more positive than what they were used to back home. Mosquera says Chara told him about "how not only the team, but the fans, media, and everybody work together toward the same goal." That may sound like business as usual to a Timbers fan, but Mosquera says it was an exciting thing for him to hear.
In addition, the amount of contact Timbers players have with their fans would be unheard of in Colombia, because of concerns for the players' safety. Imagine Valencia's surprise last week -- not only was he hosting an autograph signing, which would never happen in Colombia, but while he was there an adoring fan gave him and Andrew Jean-Baptiste their own No Pity scarves. He was reportedly flabbergasted by the experience of being scarfed.
At the risk of inflating our egos and giving the fans way too much credit, it's evident that the energy and positivity of the fans were a big part of Chara's recommendation of Portland as a great place to play and live.
Supporting each other
Back in October Timbers GM Gavin Wilkinson talked about his strategy of recruiting multiple players from the same part of the world, so that they can support each other. That strategy is clearly at play here, and it appears to be working.
At the time of publication the Timbers organization had not yet fully responded to requests for information about the specific services it provides to international players to help them adapt to life in the US. From talking with various members of the staff, though, I've gleaned that the team does not have a structured program for resettling international players, instead responding to issues as they come up.
To hear the players talk about it, whatever the team has done to get them settled has helped. Of course, perhaps the most important thing the Timbers have done is make sure more than one Colombian plays on the team. "Indeed it was quite a bit of a challenge when I was the only one here," says Perlaza, "but after that Diego arrived and that made things a little bit easier."
Diego Chara agrees. It especially helps that he and Perlaza live about three miles apart in Portland's West Side suburbs, not too far from the team's training facility. The two of them try to meet every weekend and go out to eat or just hang out. And yes, as reported yesterday, Chara's favorite restaurant right now is Applebees. (In his defense, Applebees is probably a step up from some of the other restaurants in their immediate vicinity.)
The new players are happy to see the friendship that Perlaza and Chara share. "Diego and Perlaza are going to be a really good support," says Valencia.
Perlaza and Chara have also had the opportunity to meet a group of Colombian people in the Portland area, which Mosquera and Valencia and their families will doubtless also benefit from. Perlaza says the group has family dinners and other events together, where they share memories of home and talk about current events in Colombia. "That has been a good thing," Perlaza says. "We took a trip up the mountain, we went to Washington; just being able to meet different people and talk about different stuff, it's terrific."
Chara stresses the importance of family in making the transition to life in the US. "My family are all here and I think they have adapted well to the city. Having my family here has been a great support, and I know that when [Mosquera and Valencia] get the opportunity to bring their families here, they're going to feel the same way."
Mosquera shared that he is quite close with his parents, but his mother has a health condition that will prevent her from flying to the US. "When I was in Colombia, it was easier for my parents to be with me where I was playing. So I'm going to miss that. It's going to be difficult. But hopefully with the support of the team I'm going to be able to bring my wife, and hopefully she will be able to help me and make the transition a bit easier for me."
It should be noted that not every international player thrives under these circumstances. Given that, it is evident that Wilkinson and Spencer have put a premium on character as they have recruited international players, looking for the maturity and professionalism that can help them adapt to their new environment. When we hear John and Gavin talk about making sure potential players will fit into the Timbers' system, those personal and professional traits are at least a part of what they are talking about.
Indeed, the players the Timbers have selected seem to be uniquely suited to these challenges. Portland's Colombian players are all exceedingly friendly, modest and conscientious, surprisingly open about their lives, and serious about the high standards they expect of themselves on the field. They genuinely want to feel a part of this team and this community as a whole, the language barrier being their only impediment.
Above all they express confidence in their ability to succeed here; that success should ensure that Wilkinson and Spencer are able recruit the best of their countrymen for years to come.
Update 1/29/2012: Timbers VP of Communications Chris Metz emailed me this morning with a quick addendum.
He says two Timbers staff in particular are very involved with assisting the international players in their acclimation/transition to Portland: Beto Angulo puts in a ton of work on their behalf, and Kristel Wissel assists as well.
Among the services the Timbers organization provides:
- Regular English classes are taught to the players at the stadium
- Connections to local community contacts, recommendations of family activities, and assistance in finding housing/getting settled
- Assistance with various paperwork and accounts (green card, bank, etc)
Many thanks to Timbers Media Relations Manager Marc Kostic for arranging interviews, and to Oswaldo Bernal for providing his expert interpretation for all the interviews. And of course to the players for sharing a little bit of their lives with me.