Shaq Moore: From a rat-infested locker room to La Liga to the USMNT
Shaq Moore can recall the moment he saw the rat.
It was early November 2015, and the then-18-year-old was in the early days of his first European soccer experience with Huracan Valencia, a club formerly in Spain's third tier. After playing with the United States Under-20 team at the 2015 U20 World Cup, Moore had five first-team appearances under his belt after signing as a reserve team player in May, but then the paychecks stopped coming. The uniforms weren't being washed because there was no money for a locker room attendant. Payment for referees had to come out of the players' pockets. And then, one day, the rat.
"It was actually pretty funny," recalled Moore to ESPN FC via phone. "Everyone was screaming, so I was laughing. It was just a fun time trying to get out of there."
Thankfully, several members of the squad escorted the rodent out of the room, but with the club careening toward bankruptcy, Moore and his teammates also found themselves on the outs.
Yet a little more than two years after the great rat escape of 2015, few could have predicted what would happen to the Georgia-born right-back: A United States national team call-up, a contract with Spanish first division club Levante and a start at the Camp Nou.
"What kept me going was just knowing that there would be a light at the end of the tunnel. I knew coming in that it wasn't going to be an easy road, so I was mentally prepared for it," Moore said.
That resolve bore fruit. The son of former Trinidad and Tobago international Wendell Moore had previously tried out at Levante before signing with Huracan Valencia. Upon leaving Huracan, there was a short stint at Oviedo B before Levante gave him another chance with reserve side Atletico Levante for the 2016-17 season, in which he made 27 appearances.
The following preseason, Moore impressed then-first team manager Juan Ramon Lopez Muniz, eventually earning a first-team debut in a cup match on Oct. 26, and then, three days later, he became just the fourth U.S. player to play in a La Liga match in a 2-2 draw at Eibar. But the peak came against Barcelona on Jan. 7 at the Camp Nou, in which he had Levante's best chance to score but could not get past Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen in a 3-0 defeat. The player who was riddled with a dubious European future in the summer of 2016 was suddenly holding his own against Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.
"Knowing that Levante believed in me, and them letting me know that was fulfilling, and obviously playing in La Liga is a bit of a boost as well," Moore said.
There is still plenty of work to do though. Both Muniz (sacked earlier this month) and new Levante boss Paco Lopez, who was promoted from Atletico Levante, stressed the need for Moore to improve his one-on-one defending and positioning. At times in the Segunda B, a defender can get away with a lapse or two; not so in La Liga.
Moore has just six La Liga appearances (five starts) to date as he continues to yo-yo back and forth between the first team and Atletico Levante, but USMNT fans can feel excited about Moore's national team prospects going forward. After all, he's a player who has already overcome a lot in his young career. It would have been easy for Moore to pack his bags and return to Major League Soccer -- he was training with FC Dallas when he was "discovered" during a tournament in Spain with the U.S. U18 team -- but he stayed because his motivation never waned.
That desire and discipline to triumph in Europe, combined with his speed, touch and physicality, are just the attributes the national team requires at this point in time.
"I think my call-up shows that my hard work has paid off. There were times when I didn't know if I'd ever get called, so just being here is a blessing. Fans should feel excited -- not just about me, but about the new crop of players coming through. It's tough knowing there is no World Cup [this summer], but I think we have good things coming in the future," Moore said.
Moore's time has finally come, and judging by his past, you can expect him to stick around for a while.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .