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On Soccer/by Paul Danzer/portland Tribune/timbers' Unsung Hero Finally Lands Spot On Mls All-star Team

COURTESY PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Veteran midfielder Diego Chara carries two of his children, Angel and Diego, after a Portland Timbers victory.Diego Chara finally got his due when the MLS All-Star team was announced last week.

He celebrated with the kind of performance Portland Timbers fans and his teammates expect.

Giovanni Savarese thought Chara's effort in the 1-0 win over FC Dallas on Sunday might have been his best since Savarese became the Timbers coach.

"Today he brought the level a lot higher — with sacrifice, with quality, being smart," Savarese said. "And offensively he's one that started a lot of the counters. He was incredible today."

Chara has played 245 regular-season games for the Timbers. If he's had a poor outing, I don't remember it.

On Sunday, the statistics showed Chara led the Timbers with six tackles. They don't show that half of them broke up promising Dallas attacks and at least two of them fueled Portland counters.

In other words, just another night buzzing around the park for the 5-8 energizer.

"He plays every game like that," says Diego Valeri, who has benefited from playing in front of Chara for seven years. "He's a very smart guy, clever to make tackles, make plays in the right moment."

His teammates speak of Chara's professionalism, how he does all the hard work between games to prepare for busy match days.

"And he has this switch that he hits at game time," defender Zarek Valentin says.

From the perspective of Portland, it's stunning that one of the most consistent and valuable players in the league over the last nine seasons had never made an All-Star team.

Explanations for that oversight abound. As a defense-first midfielder, Chara doesn't put up attention-grabbing numbers (nine goals and 19 assists in 245 regular-season games). His reputation as a disrupter hasn't endeared him to opposing fan bases. He plays a position that has been dominated — in terms of All-Star selections — by Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley and Osvaldo Alonso. Throw in appearances by former teammate Will Johnson, Bastian Schweinsteiger (and other big-name internationals chosen for their reputation rather than performance) and the explanation comes into focus.

The lack of appreciation for Chara is not a case of anti-Portland bias. The fan vote part of the process inevitably favors offensive players.

By picking Chara, Orlando City coach James O'Connor rewarded a player who has given many an opposing coach headaches.

In my opinion, Chara is the most impactful defense-first midfielder in MLS over the past nine seasons.

As Valeri noted, the Timbers' success — two trips to the MLS Cup finals, one championship and twice finishing atop the Western Conference in the regular season — doesn't happen without Chara patrolling midfield.

"He bails our team out a lot," Valentin says. "In the All-Star game, you'll probably see him bail them out as well."

On Sunday, Chara also was instrumental in Brian Fernandez becoming the first player in MLS history to score in each of his first five MLS games. After sending the ball wide for Sebastian Blanco, Chara raced up the center of the field. When Blanco swung his nifty cross to the top of the penalty area, Chara skipped over its path, drawing the attention of two defenders and opening the path for Fernandez's special left-footed finish.

For center back Larrys Mabiala, Chara not only is a savior at times but also a smart attacker — and a consistent communicator with the central defenders.

"He's asking me and Julio (Cascante) to talk to him a lot so it can make it easier for him to get to the right position on the field. But his intelligence to get in the right position is just incredible," Mabiala says.

What he lacks in stats and flash, Chara more than makes up for with his gut-busting sprints to cut off an opposing threat. Those plays draw oohs and ahhs from Timbers fans, and endear Chara to teammates and to coaches. And often leave opponents exasperated.

Valentin has experienced both sides. In 2012, Valentin was playing for Montreal when a Chara tackle sent him to the injured list. When Valentin came to Portland in 2016, he says his first words with Chara were to ask for an apology.

"Of course, he said 'Sorry' and smiled and then walked and grabbed breakfast like it never happened," Valentin recalls with a smile.

These days, Valentin counts Chara among his friends.

"We talk about buying a house and family and parenthood. Actually, we don't talk football much, which is great," Valentin says. "We do that with our team, and it's business. But I enjoy those different conversations with him."

Chara is smart with the ball — he is among the more accurate midfield passers in MLS. He obviously is not afraid of making an aggressive challenge. But his impact on his teammates is much more than his speed and his spunk.

"The biggest compliment for me you can make to a player is he's someone you hate playing against but he's someone you'd take on your team," Valentin says. "There's only a few of those players in this league, and he's one of them for me."

When fans discuss the transition from current favorites to the next generation of Timbers, life without Chara roaming the pitch often causes the most angst. More even than the prospect of life without Valeri.

It's not just fans. President of soccer Gavin Wilkinson has called Chara "irreplaceable."

The evidence of that is pretty stark. July 5 is the fourth anniversary of the last time the Timbers won a MLS match without Chara on the field. The Timbers have 14 losses, eight draws and no wins in 22 MLS games without Chara since beating San Jose without him on July 5, 2015.

Fortunately for the Timbers, Chara has been the model of consistency. Even with a few suspensions for yellow-card accumulation, the 27 matches he played last season were his career low.

Chara had just turned 25 when he was signed as the first Designated Player in April 2011. He's 33 now, but doesn't seem to be slowing down.

Valeri, a five-time All-Star, says the entire organization is thrilled Chara will have that experience July 31 in Orlando, when the MLS All-Stars take on Spanish club Athletico Madrid.

"We already know that he is an all-star for us every year," Valeri says. "We are happy he can experience that. But for us he's already a mayor for this club."

n As long as the subject is unsung heroes, let me mention Thorns defender Katherine Reynolds.

In the match where she became the ninth player to reach 10,000 minutes, she was a game-saver in Portland's 2-1 win on Saturday at Houston.

She made several key interventions — including a critical blocked shot. Her recovering hustle turned an open shot for Houston's Kealia Ohai into an attempt directed right at Portland goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom.

Surrounded by much younger defenders, Reynolds has been rock solid for a Thorns team that will enter Friday's 8 p.m. home match against rival Reign FC atop the National Women's Soccer League.

That the Thorns lead the league is remarkable. Despite missing a league-high nine players during the Women's World Cup — five of whom could be available Friday (the four Americans have one more match in France this weekend) — and despite playing eight of its first 10 on the road, Portland has a 5-1-4 record.

And coach Mark Parsons has some difficult decisions ahead.

When the full band is back together, how many of the players who have done so well during this spell will keep their positions?

It's hard to imagine Midge Purce, whose five goals are tied for second in the league (behind Sam Kerr's nine for Chicago), heading to the bench.

Ditto for Gabby Seiler, who has proven versatile and efficient in several positions during her rookie season.

It's the kind of problem a coach loves, of course. And with 10 of the Thorns' 14 remaining matches at Providence Park, fans will get to see if the returning stars can keep the Thorns as the NWSL pacesetter.

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