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Veteran midfielder's drive, experience help lead Portland into MLS Cup playoffs

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Rather than slowing down, Diego Valeri has given the Timbers plenty of fist-pumping moments in 2020.The Portland Timbers will be without multiple top attacking players when they open the MLS Cup Playoffs on Sunday, Nov. 22, against FC Dallas at Providence Park.

That list includes Sebastian Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda, lost to ACL tears. It also includes Felipe Mora and Andy Polo, each called up by his national team for World Cup qualifiers.

So it's good news that Jeremy Ebobisse is expected back for the 7 p.m. knockout match, which will be televised on ESPN.

And it's good news that, at age 34, Diego Valeri is still El Maestro that the Timbers and their fans have marveled at for eight seasons.

Entering the playoffs, Valeri has eight goals and seven assists in regular-season games. He also had a goal and three assists in Portland's four knockout stage games at the MLS is Back Tournament, giving him nine goals and 10 assists in 26 appearances (21 starts).

Sure, his minutes are down slightly. But not drastically. The thought that Valeri's role would morph into a super-sub proved wrong.

"I had no doubt that he was going to be the player that he's shown to be this year," coach Giovanni Savarese said. "I think there's something even better from him this year because he's showing everyone that he still can do very well."

And, even do more.

This season we have seen Valeri given defensive assignments on opponent set pieces, including corner kicks. It's a role Valeri never had before this season, but one that is another example of both his soccer intelligence and his commitment to Portland.

A year ago, that commitment was threatened. The Timbers needed the Designated Player slot Valeri had occupied for seven seasons. Valeri, understandably, wanted his due from the club. Until the club and Valeri agreed on a multiyear contract last December, there was a real chance that Valeri would finish his career elsewhere.

Savarese certainly didn't want that.

"Last year, when we had all this craziness and this talk: 'Is he staying? Is he going?' I made sure that he stayed," Savarese said.

The coach said that he "did everything possible to make sure that a player, a legend, someone who has given so much to this club stayed where he needed to be."

He started 18 of 22 regular-season games and three of four Knockout matches at MLS is Back. But Valeri's game-changing quality is most noticable when he comes off the bench.

One example was the MLS is Back semifinal against New York City FC, when Valeri entered at halftime, scored the go-ahead goal and generally helped the Timbers dictate play.

More recently, the 35 minutes Valeri played off the bench in a Nov. 4 loss to Colorado were Portland's most dynamic. The tempo of the Timbers ball and player movement on that night significantly improved with Valeri on the field.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Having guided the Timbers to the MLS is Back championship and to third place in the Western Conference, coach Giovanni Saverese says his club is focused on the challenge FC Dallas will provide.Savarese said Valeri is a great example of the credit his players deserve for staying physically healthy and fit during a season challenged by COVID-19 restrictions.

"Credit to him. He deserves it, because he puts the work in. He's a true professional," Savarese said. "I'm very glad that I didn't make a mistake and was able to work hard for him to stay with us this year and for the future."

• In FC Dallas, Portland faces a foe it hasn't seen in 2020. Because of COVID-19, Dallas missed the MLS is Back Tournament entirely and from the restart in August, the league used regional scheduling to minimize travel as teams flew in and out of cities on the same day as matches.

FCD was 9-6-7 and finished sixth in the West, but struggled on the road (1-5-3). Franco Jara, who joined Dallas this summer as a Designated Player, leads the team with seven goals in 18 appearances. Four of them came in three games over eight days in September.

• The Timbers were the most efficient team in MLS at finishing chances during the regular season, which is how Portland finished with an average of two goals per game that was second best in the league. FC Dallas was far less productive, scoring 28 times in 22 games (1.27/game).

But the Texas club was much more secure in the back than Portland, allowing only 24 goals across 24 games. Only four of the 12 Western Conference teams were scored against more than the 35 the Timbers surrendered.

Sunday's match could look familiar. FC Dallas is likely to play to its strength by challenging the Timbers to try to break through an organized defensive setup and to use counterattacks and set pieces to generate scoring chances.

FC Dallas has talked publicly about this being a chance for revenge. In 2018, Portland started its run to the MLS Cup final with a 2-1 knockout-round win at FC Dallas. The Timbers also found joy against Dallas in the 2015 Western Conference finals, a 5-3 win on aggregate over two games sending Portland to the MLS Cup final.

If Portland wins this time, the Timbers' conference semifinal match will be either at Seattle or at home against Los Angeles FC. LAFC visits Seattle on Nov. 24. The conference semifinal will be played between Nov. 29 and Dec. 2.

• Mora started for Chile, playing 84 minutes in its Feb. 13 2-0 win over Peru. Polo entered as a 77th-minute substitute for Peru. On Nov. 17, Mora started and played 75 minutes of Chile's 2-1 loss to Venezuela and Polo entered in the 71st minute as Peru lost 2-0 to Argentina. Because of quarantine requirements, Mora and Polo will not be available for Portland's match against FC Dallas. Dallas did not have any players called up for this international window. Mora, in his first season with the Timbers, has seven goals and two assists in 20 games across all competitions. Polo, in his third Portland season, has two goals and two assists this season.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - With Portland's other top strikers unavailable, the return of Jeremy Ebobisse is an important boost for the Timbers heading into their first playoff match.• Ebobisse's breakout season (nine goals in 22 games) was interrupted by a concussion suffered Oct. 18. He missed the Timbers' last five regular-season games. With no other true striker available, Portland needs Ebobisse to immediately regain his form and confidence.

MLS Cup playoff schedule (times PST)

• East play-in round (Nov. 20) — Montreal at New England, 12:30 p.m. (FS1); Inter Miami at Nashville, 6 p.m. (ESPN2).

• West quarterfinals — San Jose at Sporting Kansas City, 1 p.m. Nov. 22 (FS1); Colorado at Minnesota, 4:30 p.m. Nov. 22 (ESPN); FC Dallas at Portland, 7 p.m. Nov. 22 (ESPN); LAFC at Seattle, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 24 (ESPN).

• East quarterfinals — New York City at Orlando City, 9 a.m. Nov. 21 (UniMas); New York Red Bulls at Columbus, noon Nov. 21 (UniMas); TBD at Toronto, 3 p.m. Nov. 21 (FS1); TBD at Philadelphia, 5 p.m. Nov. 24 (ESPN).

Separation anxiety

A Thorns icon from the debut of the National Women's Soccer League, Tobin Heath is now the property of Racing Louisville FC. The club that will join the NWSL chose the NWSL rights to Heath as part of an expansion draft held Nov. 12.

Currently playing in England with Manchester United, Heath did not play for Portland in 2020. Her last appearance in a Thorns jersey was the 2019 semifinal loss to Chicago.

One of the more clever and creative players in women's soccer, Heath was one of the most popular Thorns thanks to her special skill on the ball and competitive intensity.

All of that will be missed. But protecting Heath from the expansion process would have meant exposing Lindsey Horan or recently acquired Crystal Dunn. That wasn't going to happen.

The emotional response from fans to Heath's departure makes sense. She was a big part of two championships and of the club's identity for six seasons. But, as skilled as she is, the Thorns should be just fine going forward.

With Dunn joining Horan, Rocky Rodriguez, Christine Sinclair, Sophia Smith, Morgan Weaver and Simone Charley, the Thorns are well stocked with attacking talent. Sure, it would have been fun to see Heath and Dunn on the field together, but that would have kept a promising younger player off the field.

The experience of losing a beloved player can be difficult. But expansion means difficult decisions for existing teams, an experience fans of both the Thorns and Timbers will need to brace for while both the NWSL and MLS are in expansion mode.

MLS will hold an expansion draft for 2021 arrival Austin FC on Dec. 15. Charlotte in 2022 and St. Louis and Sacramento in 2023 are in line to join MLS. The NWSL plans to add at least one team, Angel City FC, in 2022.

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