Timbers' Valeri embracing new role
It's been more than two months since Diego Valeri played a full match for the Portland Timbers. But Valeri is no less committed to the club's pursuit of excellence at age 35 than he was when leading the franchise to great heights as one of the marquee players in MLS.
Through Portland's Wednesday, Sept. 29, match at LAFC, Valeri has appeared in 302 matches across all competitions for the Timbers. At a training session after his 300th appearance, which came on Sept. 19, coach Giovanni Savarese presented Valeri with a commemorative jersey with the number 300.
"It's always good to look back and see the privilege of being a professional soccer player. And, to enjoy it in the way I did it and the way I do it," Valeri said.
For Timbers supporters, it's been a privilege to watch one of the more impactful players in MLS history play in his prime and lead the club to the upper tier of MLS. He arrived in Portland from Argentina in 2013, a 26-year-old in search of a new opportunity for himself and his young family.
On the field, Valeri's impact was immediate, turning the Timbers from an expansion club in search of an identity into a team that finished atop the Western Conference in 2013 and won a league title two years later.
Valeri scored a memorable juggling goal in his debut, the first of 86 (so far) in league play, a 3-3 season-opening draw with the start-studded New York Red Bulls.
"I remember every detail," Valeri said. "It was a welcome that I'll never forget."
He remembers not only his goal from that match, but all six of them, two from fellow Argentine Fabian Espindola that helped New York to a quick 3-1 lead. Valeri's juggling masterpiece came in the 14th minute, an indication that in their third MLS season, the Timbers had a game-changing talent.
"It was a very exciting game. With Thierry Henry and Espindola and (Tim) Cahill there, they had a great team. We had a group of young people a new team, new roster that it was ready to compete," Valeri said.
That Red Bulls team won the Supporters' Shield. That Timbers team finished atop the Western Conference.
Valeri's most recent start came on July 21. The 2-1 win over LAFC was also the last time Valeri scored a goal, a second-minute finish that was his 100th in a Timbers uniform across all competitions. Since then, Valeri has made 12 substitute appearances and played 292 minutes.
That is a dramatic shift from Valeri's role as the marquee player in Portland. But, Valeri said his role is the same: To be an attacking midfielder who creates and scores goals.
"My role is trying to be competitive, trying to be at my best level, to be ready if the coach decides to put me on the field," Valeri said. "So, that's how I approach it. And, enjoying every day because, of course, this is a part of my career where you never know how many years I am going to keep playing."
Coming off the bench presents different challenges, mental and physical, than starting a match.
"When you are a substitution and you come in, it is a different game (than as a starter)," he said. "In my case, I try to focus on the game and what's happening … what the team is needing of you going in and trying to perform that right."
Instead of finding the flow of play from the beginning, the challenge is to sync with teammates quickly. Instead of going out to create goals and, often, dictate terms of the game, as a substitute Valeri's role is usually specific. If the team is in the lead, he's there as an outlet with fresh legs, someone who teammates can connect with to keep possession. If the team is chasing the game, he might be asked to take more chances.
Savarese said Valeri might yet start again. It can be difficult when a player of Valeri's stature has his playing time limited, but Savarese said Valeri has remained a strong presence and a team leader.
""I think that shows what kind of person he is, that he's always available, he's always ready. His leadership is still there to continue to help the players (and) to help the team when he comes into the game," Savarese said.
Even with limited time in matches, Valeri still enjoys his job.
"Soccer is a beautiful game. It always gives you a different experience. It is always new," he said.
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