He’s one of the few constants that have remained with the Portland Timbers through the club’s nascent MLS history and continuing evolution. Colombian midfielder Diego Chara is firmly entrenched in Portland record books as the team’s first-ever designated player and a consummate professional who has seen his game reach a new level in 2013. Though not often on the score sheet with goals and assists, Chara is a vital cog in the team’s overall engine. He was a good player before he came to Portland, but Chara’s game has become more nuanced and skilled as he and the club developed together.
Paired with team captain Will Johnson, a player who possesses the same razor-sharp focus, dedication and team-first mentality in the center of the pitch, Chara has a defined role on the field and is one reason head coach Caleb Porter has seen the team fully embrace his philosophy and the culture of success he set out to create in the Rose City.
“He’s a professional in every sense of the word,” Porter said of the 27-year-old midfielder. “This DP stamp that’s on your forehead, it can be a negative if you have guys that aren’t professional, if you have guys that don’t do things right, if you have guys that don’t perform game in and game out. I think we’ve got two of the best examples of what you want out of your DPs in those two guys [Chara and midfielder Diego Valeri].”
Since signing with the Timbers on April 13, 2011, Chara has appeared in 84 of the team’s 94 games after making his debut on April 23, 2011, playing the full 90 minutes in 74 of those contests. Always a consistent presence on the field and one of the league’s best ball winners, Chara has seen his role within the squad, and his job on the pitch, clearly defined this season.
“Up until this year, I always thought he was one of the most underrated guys in the league,” Porter said following a training session last week. “I think a part of it is that he maybe didn’t have the supporting cast where he could just focus on his role. What I tried to do coming in here was take what he does so well and that’s being a box-to-box mid, getting around the park, disrupting the opponent, winning balls, but also keeping possession and at times slashing forward – what I tried to do was define his role so much where all those things, he does. Everyone else does their job, but he does his job and the reality is that if you allow him to do his job, he’s going to flourish.”
Plucked from Colombian Liga Postobón side Deportes Tolima, Chara has always been an active defender and a player who doesn’t shy away from any type of challenge. He has finished among the top three players in the league in fouls since 2011, a mark of his activity all around the field and his ability to disrupt the opponent’s rhythm. According to Opta, the official statisticians of MLS, Chara also ranks second in the league in total tackles (106) and fifth in tackles per 90 minutes (3.9) following Sunday’s game against Vancouver. Chara also factors into the top 10 in the league in his amount of “duels,” a statistic that records the number of 50/50 contests for possession between two players on opposing teams. Forwards typically lead this category due to crosses into the box or balls sent over the top of the defense and for Chara to place among league leaders is another testament to his non-stop energy during a match and his importance to Porter’s system. His efforts have not gone unnoticed by those outside the Timbers organization either.
“It’s the simplicity in which he plays the game and ultimately, his possession, his passing, his vision, that is phenomenal. When you put in tactically, his positioning and the way he covers ground, he has this innate ability to recover the ball quickly. In closing down space, he’s deceptive with his speed,” said 10-year MLS veteran defender Brian Dunseth, who has covered numerous Timbers games as a broadcast analyst for Real Salt Lake and, previously, FOX Soccer. “If you ask me as a general manager or a head coach, who can you build an organization around? I think Diego Chara is one of the first guys you would look to and say this guy has all facets of the game. He’s a leader and he sets the bar incredibly high. I think you saw, this year in particular, the fact that his success alongside a guy like Will Johnson—someone with a similar profile—takes him to an even higher level, an even more of an elite level.”
Ranking second on the Timbers MLS career chart in minutes played with 7,341, it’s evident when Chara is out of the lineup. Since 2011, Portland is 2-4-4 overall (.400 winning percentage) when Chara is out, including a 0-2-1 mark in 2013. While his career offensive numbers of two goals and seven assists aren’t going to dazzle most people, it’s his importance to the team’s system in the middle of the park that becomes clear. Without Chara or fellow midfielder Will Johnson in the lineup, Porter likened it to author L. Frank Baum’s Tin Man character in the classic book “The Wizard of Oz” – a good exterior but missing a crucial piece.
“These guys bring the heart and the guts and the grit to the team that’s so necessary in the center part of your formation,” Porter said.
And with games often decided by the midfield battle, having a blossoming partnership between Chara and Johnson highlights a bright future for the club.
“They’re everywhere,” Porter added. “They’ve really started to develop a chemistry together and an understanding. They’re intelligent in their positioning. They cover ground, but they do it intelligently and effectively.”
Off the field, Chara’s professional mindset has helped him become a leader on the team and someone Porter can rely on as a prime example of what it means to carry yourself in a professional manner. Furthermore, Chara’s presence – along with Valeri and Will Johnson – has helped expedite Porter’s vision of the Timbers’ culture and, to an extent, helping speed up the process of becoming a winning franchise, Porter said.
“We’re three years in and to some extent we had a lot of work in renovating our culture,” said Porter. “Certainly there was a foundation there that was created, but we needed to build the layers on it and we needed to transform or evolve the culture we had. Having guys like Diego Chara, Will Johnson, Valeri, some of those guys, I think that allowed it to happen quicker. The example they set, even though I’m giving guys messages off the field, it’s much more powerful when a player gives that same message – what’s right, what’s wrong, what the expectation is, what the standards are – not just what we’re going to do here in this club in general, but as professionals. It’s invaluable.”
The results, as well as Chara’s consistently solid play in midfield, have helped the Timbers reach the cusp of qualifying for their first-ever postseason berth as an MLS club. With their sights set on not only qualifying for the playoffs, but making a run for MLS Cup, Diego Chara’s presence on the pitch will continue to play a critical role in the team’s success.
“I’m incredibly excited to see the transformation of this club and see where this club is going to be at in the next two or three years,” Dunseth said. “This team is only going to get better and only become more consistent. With the home crowd and what that club has, it’s going to be nothing short of phenomenal. I think Diego Chara is going to be a huge part of that puzzle and the cornerstone alongside Will Johnson in that midfield.”