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Paraguayan youngster Cristhian Paredes emerging as steady force in Portland Timbers midfield

The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. — Jamie Goldberg The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

May 17--During those long trips, Paredes wasn't thinking about how he was setting himself up to one day make the jump to the professional level. He just knew he was happiest with the ball at his feet and was going to do whatever it took to stay on the field.

"I think at that age all I wanted to do was play and play and play," said Paredes through an interpreter. "I think that helped me not even take a look at what I was sacrificing at the moment. To me, it was just about wanting to play soccer."

Five years later, Paredes has traveled more than 6,000 miles away from his home in Paraguay to play the sport that he loves.

After stints with Sol de America and Mexican powerhouse Club America, Paredes made the decision to join the Portland Timbers this season. Despite being the second-youngest player on the roster next to Marco Farfan and having a limited grasp on English, the 19-year-old has excelled in his first two and half months with the Timbers, making eight starts and playing a key role in central midfield.

"He's still raw and he still has a lot more to give in the game, but I think he has been a very good and important addition to the club, even at his young age," Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said. "We're excited to see how much he's going to grow."

LEAVING HOME

An oft-overlooked South American nation of seven million, Paraguay has a rich history around the game of soccer. Though its national team has not qualified for the World Cup in the last two cycles, the nation made it all the way to the quarterfinals in its last World Cup appearance in 2010.

But Paredes was the only one in his family that took to the country's most popular sport.

One of his earliest memories is of receiving a soccer ball as a birthday gift. He would take that ball with him everywhere. By the time he turned 10, Paredes was playing regularly in a local league.

It was by luck that Paredes' father, who is also named Cristhian, took a construction job near the Sol de America facilities when his son was 14. There he learned about the club's youth program and managed to secure a tryout for his talented teenage son.

Not only did Paredes make the team, he showed so well in the academy program that he earned a call-up to Paraguay's U-17 National Team at 16. Two years later, he made his professional debut for Sol de America. He went on to start 30 games and score one goal in his rookie season, as well as make six starts during the 2016 Copa Sudamericana. He has since earned a cap for the senior Paraguay National Team.

"I think I was fortunate to have a group of people with a lot of experience around me," Paredes said. "I had the opportunity to compete alongside (Uruguay star) Sebastian Abreu and other experienced players. I learned a lot from them."

Paredes' standout rookie season didn't go unnoticed.

In 2017, Club America offered him a chance to leave Paraguay and continue his development in Liga MX, the strongest league in Latin America. Paraguay is one of the poorer nations in South America and Paredes grew up in a humble neighborhood. Paredes, who was 18 at the time, knew signing with Club America would not only give him a chance to take his game to the next level, but allow him to support his family financially. He signed the contract before even telling his parents.

"They took it very well considering that I didn't tell them anything until I signed," Paredes said. "I knew it was the best thing at the moment for me and my family. That's something I always think about."

The move to Mexico didn't go quite as planned, but it set Paredes up for his next destination. He made just two appearances for Club America before falling out favor, spending the rest of his time with the club competing for its second team.

By the end of 2017, Paredes was looking for a new opportunity. That's when the Timbers came calling.

THE RIGHT FIT

The Timbers knew they had to sign the right player in defensive midfield this offseason.

With Diego Chara turning 32 this year and David Guzman headed to the World Cup this summer, the club needed to find a versatile central midfielder who could step into a starting role when called upon, but also continue to grow and develop into a long-term solution for the club.

Paredes had been on the Timbers' radar ever since his breakout season with Sol de America and his move to Mexico had further piqued their interest.

In Paredes, Portland saw a hard-working player that could both contribute defensively and get forward in the attack, as well as adapt to playing different roles and competing alongside different types of players in the midfield. Despite his age, Paredes also demonstrated maturity and professionalism, and had already proven that he was capable of making a smooth transition to a new country with his move to Mexico.

In February, the Timbers officially acquired Paredes on loan with an option to buy from Club America. He became the latest in a crop of young and talented Paraguayans coming to MLS, a list that includes Atlanta United star Miguel Almiron.

"I think over time, you start to narrow it down and Paredes was the one that rose to the top," Timbers President of Soccer and General Manager Gavin Wilkinson said. "It was the way he played -- he's comfortable on the ball, he likes getting forward, he likes to shoot. We then started to look at, 'Would he complement Chara? Would he complement Guzman? Does he give us flexibility in the middle of the park?' The answer was yes."

In his first weeks in Portland, Paredes had a long conversation with Savarese about the role he would play for the Timbers this season.

With Chara and Guzman both returning to the team, it seemed unlikely that Paredes would see many minutes early this year. But Chara wasn't ready to start on opening day after breaking his foot last season and Guzman suffered an injury while on international duty in March, giving Paredes a surprise opportunity to prove himself in the lineup. He seized it.

With the Timbers looking for their first win of the season on April 14 against Minnesota United, Paredes got on the end of a pass from Diego Valeri and fired a bouncing shot toward goal. Fanendo Adi redirected it into the net as the Timbers went on to win 3-2. It was Paredes' second assist of the night. A week later, he had a tremendous performance in the midfield against NYCFC, finishing the match with six recoveries and tied for a game-high three interceptions as the Timbers won 3-0.

He hasn't looked back.

"I told (Savarese), 'Once I gain confidence, I think it's going to be hard to stop me,'" Paredes said. "Little by little, he gave me that. The last few games I feel a lot more confident. That's one thing with me, I really do feel when I'm confident that there's no stopping me."

-- Jamie Goldberg -- jgoldberg@oregonian.com

503-853-3761 -- @jamiebgoldberg

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