Diego Valeri changed Portland Timbers, Major League Soccer
It took maybe two seconds, a juggling act in traffic: Left foot-right foot-chest-outside of right foot … goal.
That is the way Diego Valeri, dancing past flat-footed New York Red Bulls, introduced himself to the Portland Timbers and their fans.
It was March 3, 2013. I had ventured from the press box that afternoon to sit near the Timbers Army. The goal was scored at the south end of then Jeld-Wen Field, so it took watching the replay to understand the sequence that produced the first of Diego Valeri's 100 Timbers goals.
However, it didn't take looking at the replay to understand that something significant had happened.
After two mostly forgettable season as the new kids of MLS, that goal in the 2013 home opener was a marker that things were different. The Portland Timbers would no longer be the cute little club with the delirious supporters group. They would no longer need to get by on grit and intensity — though Valeri would do his best to sharpen that trait for his new club.
Before Diego Valeri, the Timbers were a club celebrated for a grassroots fan culture and cursed by opposing clubs for the lack of a real grass pitch.
Valeri's arrival turned Portland into a real player in MLS.
As he departs — his transfer to his first club, Argentina's Athletico Lanus, became official Thursday, Jan. 20 — the tangible accomplishments are celebrated: One MLS Cup title (in which he was voted MLS Cup MVP), the 2020 MLS is Back championship, three MLS Cup final appearances, the 2017 Landon Donovan MLS MVP award, five MLS All-Star Game appearances, three MLS Best XI honors.
Nine years and one week after his arrival, Diego Valeri leaves with the Timbers among the most successful clubs in MLS.
Turned out, that juggling play against the Red Bulls was more than a special goal. It was a real turning point.
The on-field talent was clear. Also clear was that this guy was a quick study willing to speak English in interviews even as he was learning the language. It was an early indication of the commitment he was making to the Timbers and to Portland.
Gracious in victory and in defeat (when his frustration would sometimes flash to the surface during interviews), Valeri was patient when I would hang back from a scrum of reporters to get his insight about a play, a decision he made, or some aspect of a match. His answers were usually thoughtful and educational.
Valeri, his wife, Florencia, and daughter, Connie, forged bonds with this community beyond the confines of Providence Park. Without a doubt, that connection strengthened the bond between the soccer star and his adopted home. Diego Valeri always wanted to play great soccer. He didn't need to be a superstar, though.
His departure, while no surprise, closes the door on one of Portland's greatest sports success stories.
There are countless ways to measure Valeri's impact, not only on the Timbers fortunes, but on Major League Soccer. His ability to drive a club like Portland from shaky upstart to champions, and to be embraced and celebrated by a city he'd never heard of until a phone call from his agent, helped make MLS cool — an option for other young international players and players in their prime who (despite the money spent to bring in David Beckham) mostly viewed MLS as a second-choice destination.
But, for those who like their evidence in numbers, a good measure is this: Over Portland's first two seasons as a MLS club, opponents scored 30 more goals than did the Timbers. In Valeri's nine regular seasons, Portland outscored its opponents by 59 goals and only once (in the post-title 2016 season) allowed more goals than it scored.
Want more? Diego Valeri scored 100 goals in all competitions as a Portland Timber. His 86 regular-season goals rank 15th on MLS' all-time list. He is one of only three players in MLS history to produce more than 80 goals and 80 assists in MLS regular season play, finishing with 86 goals and 91 assists in 262 regular-season matches. Landon Donovan (145 goals, 136 assists) and Javier Moreno (133 and 102) are the others on that list, and each played 78 more career MLS matches than did Valeri.
It's interesting that 2015 was the season that Valeri made his fewest regular-season appearances. He missed the first eight games that season as he recovered from an ACL tear suffered late in the 2014 season, a process during which he taught himself to play the guitar. That season, of course, was the championship year, Valeri's most dramatic and historic goal coming 27 seconds into the MLS Cup final at Columbus.
That goal was a burst of adrenaline unleashed, an unforgettable moment of exhilaration that — like so much of what Valeri delivered for Portland — provided the belief that the Timbers belonged.
But, for me, the Valeri signature goals were chip-shots, delicate placements beyond the reach of exasperated goalkeepers, usually delivered at unexpected moments, and often with Valeri running at full pace. There were his deft free kicks, deliveries that made any foul committed within 30 yards of goal an act of silliness.
More than anything, Valeri's success in Portland and in MLS was about connecting. His assists are evidence of how well he connected on the field with teammates. His passionate, yet humble, commitment to the club forged a strong, emotional bond with its fans.
Valeri would have been a fan favorite playing anywhere in MLS. He undoubtedly would have done his part to make any adopted city a real home. But the Valeri-Portland bond seemed so natural, so innate, that it's hard to imagine the maestro working his magic anywhere else.
Valeri's arrival in Portland was an unmistakable pivot point for the Timbers. And it rippled through MLS.
While many of the league's signature clubs used the Designated Player rule to sign established players with big reputations — starting with David Beckham, for whom the DP rule was established — Valeri arrived as a 26-year-old player in his prime. In the process of turning Portland into a winner, he showed other players and other clubs a new path to success in MLS.
Back in September, at a rare training session open to media members, I chatted with Valeri about how MLS has changed since he arrived.
"Every season it's evolving to a place where it becomes more competitive," he said. "You see freshness there, with young people coming from different parts of the world."
Diego Valeri pioneered that shift, thriving in Portland as one of the faces of MLS.
Plans are in the works for a testimonial match between Lanus and the Timbers in 2023 to honor Valeri (he will play on half with each club). Perhaps that's the day his name is added to the Timbers Ring of Honor, which adorns the second deck of the recently built east stand at Providence Park — a structure that exists, at least in part, because in January of 2013 Diego Valeri decided to give Portland a shot.
As coach Giovanni Savarese noted, in a perfect world, Diego Valeri would finish his career as a Portland Timbers player. The soccer realities of the MLS salary structure and the ability of a soon-to-be 36-year-old to cover the ground Savarese asks of his attacking players means Valeri will finish his playing career with his original club.
There was nearly a storybook finish to the Valeri Era. When the ball was at his feet near the top of the penalty area during extra time on Dec. 11, all of Providence Park saw the ball curling into the twine in front of the Timbers Army. Alas, the shot went off target. Moments later, Valeri's penalty kick was saved, Sean Johnson making a strong dive.
For all the individual success and recognition, Valeri always talked first about the club, about doing everything in his power to bring trophies to Portland.
To have that goal so close, yet see it denied on his final touches as a Timber was agonizing. Watching Valeri sprawled on the field as New York City FC players celebrated, knowing this was almost certainly his final act for the Timbers, the emotion of the moment was palpable.
It was more than the natural disappointment in the result. It was one final exhibit of how much Diego Valeri cared about this place, this club.
It was, like so many with Valeri, a very human moment — one last reminder of the special connection between a special soccer player and the community that embraced him.
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