CHICAGO – Less than 24 hours after notching a goal and an assist for the Portland Timbers, midfielder Diego Valeri stood over his team’s final penalty in Sunday’s MLS Skills Challenge presented by FIFA 18. Valeri had missed his first attempt at the eight breakable targets placed in the goal, but this time he connected, smacking the top right target, earning points that eventually helped his team come out on top.
The Blue team of Valeri, MLS legend Dwayne De Rosario, Chicago Red Stars forward Stephanie McCaffrey and professional freestyler Indi Cowie ended up winning the Skills Challenge at the PrivateBank Fire Pitch, beating the White team made up of Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof, Chicago Red Stars defender Arin Gilliland, MLS legend Brian McBride and freestyler Mo Ali.
“It was good, always fun to do something different and enjoy some games and always be involved with the people,” Valeri said.
It was the first time that the event was held live in front of fans, with hundreds lining the Northside facility's turf field and others sitting at tables in the open-air bar and restaurant area.
Fans look on as the Blue team celebrates. | USA Today Sports Images
The event, which replicated three different skill challenges from the EA SPORTS FIFA 18 video game in real life, was a unique experience, especially for those who have played the digital version before.
“It’s really fun,” Valeri said. “Actually I used to play with my daughter, always these couple games in FIFA, and I will tell her what I did.”
The first challenge put the players in the center of a ring of mini-goals. As balls were fired at them, they had to control and finishing into whichever goal was lighting up and beeping, with bonus points awarded for one-touch finishes. McCaffrey and Cowie took on the first event for the Blue team and beat out Ali and Kappelhof by one goal.
The second event asked players to chip balls into a Skee-Ball-like series of buckets, with the smaller, further-away targets earning more points. McBride beat De Rosario and Gilliland topped Valeri to help the White team even the contest at one event apiece. Valeri, usually so precise with the ball at his feet, called the chipping the toughest event.
“It was really hard, to be honest,” Valeri said. “I didn’t warm up, so I wasn’t warm enough, but it was fun.”
Chicago Red Stars defender Arin Gilliland follows a shot. | USA Today Sports Images
Fittingly, it was penalties that decided it in the final event. Each team got two rounds to shoot at eight targets, worth different point values for better placement. With all four players hitting at least one target, the Blue team walked away with the victory.
Kappelhof, who didn’t hit a target on either of his penalties for the White team, joked to the crowd afterward that it is a good thing he doesn’t take them for the Fire.
Regardless of the result, as the players took photos and signed autographs afterward, first-time All-Star Kappelhof was in high demand with the local fans.
“It’s great represent the Fire in your own city, during the MLS All-Star week,” Kappelhof said. “It’s nice to do.”
As Valeri left the field and signed another autograph, a Fire fan shouted toward Fire General Manager Nelson Rodriguez, who was standing nearby.
“Nelson, sign him for the Fire!”
The GM who has pulled the strings in the club’s 2017 resurgence could only laugh and shrug at that, one move certainly beyond his reach.