VALENCIA, Spain — Shaq Moore knew he was well-adapted to life in Europe when he went home to the United States and felt strange that his family wanted to have dinner so early.

“It’s crazy, I feel like I’m Spanish now because they eat dinner so late,” the young American soccer player said. “I end up eating dinner at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. now. And I went home for summer or Christmas and everyone was eating at like 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., and I’m like, ‘You guys are eating too early, you know.'”

There was another good sign when he started dreaming in Spanish.

“That’s when I kind of knew I was integrating myself with the culture a little bit better,” the broad-smiling Moore said.

Shaquell Moore, known as “Shaq,” is trying to make it in Europe the hard way.

Instead of staying back home and going through the local ranks to make it to the national team and eventually attract the attention of European clubs, Moore went abroad as a teenager to join smaller teams and try to move up in his career like other European youngsters. He was proud to compare himself to the “canteranos,” the home-grown players who go through the youth squads of Spanish teams.

Now, three years into his venture, after many ups and downs, Moore is having a chance to play against Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the Spanish league.

The 21-year-old full back is playing for first-division club Levante, having already made a few appearances as a starter with the first team, including against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. He has become one of the few Americans to ever play in the Spanish league, along with Kasey Keller, Jozy Altidore and Oguchi Onyewu.

“If you can make it in La Liga, then maybe you can play anywhere in the world,” Moore said in an interview with The Associated Press at Levante’s training center outside of Valencia. “In the U.S., maybe I would have been too comfortable coming from the youth teams and coming up. I just wanted to fight it out with the best.”

Born from parents from Trinidad and Tobago in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Moore is hoping his time in Europe will help him earn a first-team spot with the U.S. national team. He was one of the most experienced players when he was with the U.S. under-17 squad, appearing in nearly 40 international friendlies, and was also in the Under-20 World Cup roster in 2015.

“I want to focus on getting better every day here with Levante and hopefully the national team will come,” he said. “Maybe sooner, maybe later, but I know if I’m patient, it will come.”

Moore, a vigorous right back with sound defensive skills, decided to “test the waters overseas” after getting a first glimpse of Spain in a tournament in the Canary Islands with the national team’s under-18 squad. He attracted the attention of some Spanish clubs and returned for a trial before eventually signing with third-division club Huracan Valencia in 2015.

“It was kind of a big jump, especially because it wasn’t one of the biggest clubs, so there was a lot of risk, something that I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to do,” Moore said. “But I was like, ‘You know what? It’s a risk I’ll take.'”

He made the move despite having a chance to stay in the U.S. with FC Dallas on a home-grown contract, and knowing he could easily be forgotten back home if he didn’t get to play much in Spain.

“Obviously, being a little bit farther, maybe they can’t see as much games, as much everyday routines as I’m going through,” he said. “But I think I’m in a good place right now, a good environment. It’s a good league, I think the word will get around eventually.”

Moore, who went to live near Atlanta with his family when he was 10, said he adapted well to life in Europe, especially after overcoming the language barrier, which “was one of the hardest parts” as it kept him from being able to communicate with coaches and teammates.

“Playing-wise there was also an adjustment,” he said. “The level, the style, how they play… But once I had the Spanish down I was able to integrate myself more to the culture. Then, being on the field was much easier.”

There were challenges on the field as well, though, and his hope of making it in Europe took a big hit when Huracan was expelled from the league because of financial irregularities, keeping him without a salary and facing an uncertain future.

“It was a sticky situation and not something ideal you would want as your first professional experience,” Moore said. “You are always thinking, ‘Maybe you should have done this or that …’ But I just wanted to stick it out. I knew mentally, if I stayed in it, if I was strong enough, I knew it would turn around eventually.”

Moore spent time with second-division club Oviedo after leaving Huracan, then signed with Levante in 2016, spending time with the team’s “B” squad. He made his Spanish league debut last year, and recently extended his contract with Levante until 2020. Now the goal is to try to get as much playing time as possible with the first team.

Moore said his move to Europe was extra special for his father, Wendell, who moved to the U.S. to play soccer on a scholarship with Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. He eventually played professionally and had a few appearances with Trinidad and Tobago’s national team.

“Seeing me on the big stage playing against the best players in the world is definitely special for him,” Moore said. “And not just for him, but my whole family and friends back home. They really support me and they are kind of living their dream through me.”

Moore’s biggest moment in Europe came earlier this year when he started against Barcelona and faced Messi, which he called “a big reward in itself.”

“Just being here, the training sessions, the atmosphere, the stadiums, everything …,” he said. “Just the other day, watching Ronaldo play, just being in a locker room watching him walk right by me. All that little stuff, it kind of plays with your head and you just know that if you keep working, you can actually get there.”

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