COLUMBUS, Ohio – The office of Gavin Wilkinson, the Portland Timbers' general manager, sits right next to the team’s gym in the bowels of Providence Park.
In the months that followed the 2014 MLS season, it gave Wilkinson a front-row seat to the rehabilitation process of Diego Valeri, the dynamic Argentine playmaker who tore his left ACL in Portland's season finale that year.
So Wilkinson knows better than most just what Valeri went through to get to where he is now, set to lead the Timbers in an MLS Cup showdown Sunday against Columbus Crew SC (1 pm PT; ESPN, WatchESPN, UniMás in the US; TSN, RDS2 in Canada).
“I would always feel that he’s closer to returning than he is just because of what I see and the effort and the attitude he had,” Wilkinson told MLSsoccer.com on Friday at the team hotel. “Just a lot of effort. His whole offseason last year was devoted to returning. He didn’t have an offseason.… So in some ways he’s been going 13, 14 months.
“We had trainers working with him when everyone else was on Christmas break – but not Valeri.”
Valeri’s injury occurred against FC Dallas in Frisco, Texas, the same field on which Portland clinched a berth in the Cup last weekend, adding injury to the insult of the Timbers missing out on the 2014 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs by just one point. It would keep him sidelined until May, a shell of the player who recorded double-digit totals in goals and assists in his first two years with the team – the player who signified the club’s evolution into a contender on his arrival, along with head coach Caleb Porter, in 2013 – until the season’s final few months.
The Timbers struggled without him, winning just two of their first nine games prior to his return. It’s made getting to this point all the more meaningful for the player who resolved to bring a trophy to the club and city with which he has shared a love affair ever since he arrived in the Rose City.
“It means a lot. It’s very special for me,” Valeri told MLSsoccer.com. “I chose Portland; I wanted to come here. And we grew up together.
It’s a very special moment for me, the club, my teammates, so we will enjoy it. We will fight, we will work, and we will leave everything on the field.”
Valeri’s journey to Portland is well documented: He left his native country, where he had been under contract with his hometown club Lanus since 2003, following a frightening car-jacking incident with his wife. He came to Portland in search of a better life, and in the process he and his family found a new home.
“It is,” he said. “I had the opportunity to play in my town in Argentina, where I was born, where I grew up, to play there and trust in that club, so it’s special. Now this is my third year [with the Timbers], and this is the second place where I have played that amount of years. So it is. … It is my second home.”
He scored 10 goals and recorded 13 assists in his first season in Portland, earning MLS Newcomer of the Year honors and leading the Timbers to the Western Conference regular season championship and Conference Championship stage in the MLS Cup Playoffs. He was arguably even better last year, with 11 goals and 14 assists prior to the injury.
“Diego Valeri was a huge component, because while he might not be a big-name star he’s a very good player, and I wouldn’t trade him for anybody,” Porter said. “He’s had a rough year, people forget that. They come up, they show up to the game, they sit down and watch the game, people from afar come in and evaluate the players, but they don’t always take into account that these people are human beings and sometimes what they’ve been through. And Diego is one of them.”
If Portland fans didn’t quite know what they were getting in the relatively unknown player before his signing, they quickly came to the realization that Portland’s offensive centerpiece was one of the league’s top players.
“Valeri is a superb human being, really is a great human being, great family, and very professional in every way,” Wilkinson said. “And for someone like that to come here and have a vision and a dream in many ways and be rewarded for that I think is tremendous.
“The key element – even this year, when he was coming back from injury – you can see the quality he has and the difference he makes within our team.”
Valeri scored a goal in his first start back from injury, in a 2-1 win at the Montreal Impact on May 9. But he really hit his stride late in the season and, unsurprisingly, the Timbers started playing their best soccer. He had assists in five of the team’s final nine regular season games and two in their 2-2 draw against FC Dallas in the deciding leg of the Conference Championship.
Playing in a tweaked lineup that moved Darlington Nagbe alongside him in central midfield, the Timbers also rediscovered their goalscoring touch with 12 goals in their last four regular season games and nine in five playoff games.
What would it mean to bring the Cup to Portland? Valeri compared it to something out of a fairytale.
“You can dream that, but the reality is sometimes that you can’t have that,” he said. “So it is now. I’m really happy about the decision, my family is very happy for me and that’s very important.… I’m meeting a lot of good people, in the players, the coaching staff and a lot of people. And that’s good too, because after I retire I will keep that.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.