Valeri continues to embrace, redefine what it means to be an icon

20201208 Valeri 25 column

Major League Soccer is so far into its Designated Player era, the conversations that hovered around the new rule over a decade ago have long gone silent. Back then, when the “Beckham Rule” first allowed teams to transcend the salary-cap limits for a marquee player, there were visions of a player’s impact, on-field and off-; of both new competitive and commercial heights; of names who could define conversations and bring new eyes to the product. 

Back then, the names linked with the role were names like David Beckham. Or Thierry Henry. They were names that spoke to global goals, as well as a prestige the league desperately sought. They were names which, for as much as they were defined by their pasts, spoke to what Major League Soccer wanted to be in the future.

Like everything else in MLS, those definitions evolved, and as the appetite for more Designated Players and Targeted Allocation signings has grown, we’ve become less particular about what DPs are supposed to be. But there’s still a responsibility that comes with the money, the role, and the expectations - a responsibility not every player can live up to. There’s a responsibility to be somewhat special.

Diego Valeri has done more than live up to that responsibility. He’s helped redefine it. When the Argentine midfielder arrived in Portland eight seasons ago, he did so when Beckham was still the player most associated with the Designated Player label. More realistically, Valeri was intended to be more like two of his trequartista countrymen - two men Valeri knows well: Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales and Columbus’s Guillermo Barros Schelotto. In time, Valeri forged a path between those two standards. Within Portland’s world, he has a type of Beckham-esque significance, while in the imprint he’s made on this team, he’s been Morales, Schelotto, and more. 

This morning, Valeri was named to MLS’s The 25 Greatest, a list celebrating the league’s best players over MLS’s first quarter-century of existence. While that honor carries prestige, it’s less telling than the fact Valeri’s place was never in doubt. After eight years in Portland, his legend is already secure.

In his first year with the Timbers, Valeri helped his team to the top of the Western Conference, becoming a figurehead for the offseason overhaul that landed the Timbers in their first postseason. Two years later, he scored the opening goal at MLS Cup while helping Portland claim its first title, winning Cup MVP honors along the way. In another two years, he’d claimed the league’s Most Valuable Player award while in 2018, he helped lead his team to a second league final. Six seasons in, he was already an icon.

Then there are the quantifiables - numbers that have already earned him company at the league’s upper echelons. Along with icons like Landon Donovan and Jamie Moreno at least 80 goals and 80 assists in regular-season games. As of now, Valeri has 84 of one (goals), 88 of the other, both of which put him in the top 15 on MLS’s all-time lists (14th in goals; 10th in assists). Only three other players rank as high in each category.

In all competitions, Valeri is up to an even 100 assists. Four more goals, and he’ll hit the century mark there, too. Given he’s collected at least eight goals in every season where he’s avoided injury, the next milestone feels inevitable. At some point in 2021, Valeri will become the next member of MLS’s 100-goal club, leaving few honors left for him to claim within his nine seasons in Major League Soccer.

He’s been an All-Star four times, a Best XI selection thrice. He’s been his squad’s Player of the Year on three occasions and the Supporters’ Player of the Year another two. Five times, he’s led his team in goals and, with his seventh assist in the 2020 season, Valeri became the fourth player in MLS history with as many assists in eight consecutive seasons.

Those numbers alone would be enough to earn him a place among MLS’s 25 greatest players, but those numbers alone only capture part of his impact. It captures what he’s meant on stat sheets and in box scores, but it only touches on why Timbers fans have developed so much passion about El Maestro. He’s the man they mention first when they talk about statues outside Providence Park, and for all the famed names that have brought their soccer to Portland — from Charles, Hoban and Betts, to Bain and Chará — there’s one name most fans say first when they talk about their memories of the Green and Gold.

It’s a connection that goes beyond the numbers, honors, trophies and results. It goes to the responsibility. While MLS has long moved past the idea of Designated or TAM players being club saviors, Valeri never shirked that burden. Not then. Not now. From the moment he arrived in Portland, he embraced the idea that his arrival came with expectations. On the field, that meant 10 goals and 13 assists in his Newcomer of the Year-winning season. Off the field, it meant learning English quickly, becoming someone who would face questions and communicate to fans, and developing into one of the most important figures in the locker room. As the Timbers broadened their reach into South America, welcoming more people who’d follow the paths of Valeri and Diego Chará, Valeri became a big brother, an ambassador, a host and a counselor. He became everything a marquee acquisition was supposed to be and, in the connections he made and sustained, he became much more. He became more than anybody could have asked for.

In the process, Valeri became part of what made the Timbers a blueprint for other markets. There was the enviable fanbase, the city’s soccer culture, and the historic, downtown venue - all things which were here before the Argentine’s arrival. But soon, there was also the player that embodied all those things - the man who could be a part of national-television pregame shows, featured in international coverage and be the face of a franchise. He was the player that had come from one of globe football’s hotbeds, Argentina, to start a new life in Portland, and he was ready to tell the world why his decision had paid off. For everything he’d given soccer in Portland, Portland’s soccer had given him, his wife, Florencia, and his daughter, Connie, so much, too. In return, he became somebody his city could be proud of.

The ride hasn’t always been smooth. Valeri suffered a major knee injury at the end of 2014. The team barely missed spots in the postseason in 2014 and 2016. Early playoff exits have curtailed other promising seasons, and at the end of 2019, negotiations for a new contract poured into the public space. For a brief moment a year ago, it seemed like the captain’s time in Portland would end too soon.

Now, on the other side of that moment, the same Valeri who helped define this era of Portland soccer — who has become an exemplar of what a marquee acquisition can be in Major League Soccer — continues to embody the responsibility he embraced on his arrival. And when we look at the rest of MLS’s The 25 Greatest list, it’s unclear anybody has ever embraced that responsibility as well.

Perhaps the league has had better players, and in names like Beckham, Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, MLS certainly has had a few more renown. But has any player been as impactful to their team as Valeri has been to Portland? 

That’s a responsibility he embraced when he came north eight years ago. That’s a responsibility he’s redefined while becoming a league icon.