Diego Valeri has some impressive accomplishments on his résumé.
He led his former club, Argentina’s Lanús, to their first Primera Division championship with a first-place finish in the Apertura tournament after a breakout season in 2006-07.
He played in UEFA Champions League games with FC Porto in 2009. He's made three starts with the Argentina national team.
But Valeri didn’t hesitate to call his first season in MLS with the Portland Timbers his seminal achievement, marked by being named the league’s 2013 Newcomer of the Year on Wednesday.
“Not like this year,” Valeri said in a phone conversation with MLSsoccer.com about how his past successes compared to Wednesday's award. “I was a champion in Argentina. I had a very good year in 2007. But this year for me all along was different because it’s a different country, a different league, and I think the success this year for me was maybe the most important of my career.”
On the heels of being selected to MLS’ Best XI squad Tuesday, the attacking midfeilder’s selection as the top newcomer was a landslide. Valeri far outpaced New England Revolution's José Gonçalves, the 2013 MLS Defensive Player of the Year, thanks to a league-leading 13 assists along with 10 goals – one of just two players to record double figures in goals and assists this season along with LA Galaxy star Robbie Keane.
Valeri said the award took away some of the sting of being defeated by Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference Championship.
“This award is great for me, made me happy, made me satisfied about my job and my work,” he said. “Maybe in these next few days I can think about this year much better than now.”
Valeri didn’t waste time in making his impact on the Timbers’ groundbreaking season.
He scored a goal in the season opener March 3 in a 3-3 draw against eventual Supporters’ Shield champion New York Red Bulls. Portland then signed him to a new, multi-year contract in August, during the middle of a stretch in which he recorded a goal or an assist in eight of 11 appearances as the Timbers made a successful push for their first-ever MLS playoff berth.
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“We worked hard in the preseason because we knew Portland deserved to have a good team and a team with a style and we worked for that,” Valeri said. “We worked really hard. I think the most important is the identity, we showed a good identity and style, and the fans deserve that. … I was surprised with Portland, with the people, with the fans, they are amazing.”
Valeri said he exceeded his expectations coming into the league and expects to up the ante next season. And the always humble Valeri directed much of the credit to his teammates, three of which have received high honors themselves with goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts being named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year on Wednesday and midfielder and team captain Will Johnson receiving a Best XI nod.
“Every award that I can have is for the team,” Valeri said.
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.