PORTLAND, Ore. – When Diego Valeri first considered leaving Club Atletico Lanús in Argentina for the faraway destination of the Portland Timbers, he knew nothing about the club or the city. As he put it with a shake of his head on Monday: "Nothing at all."
The initial draw, he said, was MLS itself, a league he became familiar with through Javier Morales, who played with Valeri at Lanús before leaving for Real Salt Lake in 2007.
"I wanted to come to MLS because Javier Morales played with me at Lanús – we almost, not grew up together, but I was very close to him when he was at Lanús because he grew up in the same place as me," Valeri told reporters.
"He came here and he did really well. He had a really good time here and I followed him in MLS a lot. That's why I wanted to come here."
Following in the footsteps of Morales, who is six years Valeri's senior and now plays for FC Dallas, is a decision that worked out just fine for Valeri.
Since signing with the Timbers in 2013, Valeri has found himself frequently in MVP contention and on Monday, he finally won, overwhelmingly chosen by voters as the best player in MLS this season.
Morales was one of the players who sent Valeri a video message at the award presentation Monday, telling Valeri: "We've known each other since we were kids and I've always known how great of a player you are, but this year has been incredible. I mean, you won the MVP award in a league with so many good players, like [David] Villa, [Sebastian] Giovinco, [Andrea] Pirlo – it makes this award more special."
Of course, there were other factors pushing Valeri to make the move from Argentina to MLS. Valeri has been open about his experience of being robbed at gunpoint and how that incident motivated him to leave Argentina while he and his wife Florencia raised their daughter Connie.
But as a player, Valeri was also keen to find new opportunities to prove himself.
"I played a lot in Argentina and I made an impact in Argentina, but I needed to do it in other places," he said.
When asked why he has found so much success in MLS, Valeri cites his decision to come to the league so he could be a game-changer.
"I came here with a lot of intensity," he said, MVP trophy in hand. "I wanted to make an impact – for me it was a great experience and a great opportunity to show what I can do in a different place of the world."
Back in 2012, the Timbers were in need of a playmaker and initially set their sights on Mix Diskerud, a U.S. national team regular at the time. But when the asking price rose too high, Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson looked in another direction.
"Gavin called me and said, 'Let's spend a bit more money and take a bit of risk out of the equation,'" owner Merritt Paulson recalled. "'In Argentina, there's this guy named Valeri. He should be our target.'"
When Valeri scored his first goal in his Timbers debut – a beautiful juggled volley against the New York Red Bulls – the Timbers knew they had found a special player.
"We hadn't had that kind of on-field quality, maybe ever, here," Paulson said.
And so, Valeri and his family have found a home in a city they knew nothing about five years ago. He is active in the local community through the Timbers' Stand Together program and he can be frequently spotted at Portland Thorns NWSL games with Connie. He has spoken of making Portland a permanent home after he retires.
Valeri will already be remembered as a Timbers legend and his shiny new MVP award only adds to that.
He admitted on Monday that he was surprised to have won the MVP award over the league's other stars, like Villa and Giovinco, and to have done so at age 31. But Morales, his inspiration to join MLS, knew Valeri had it in him.
"To be honest, I always knew that he is a really good player – I know him from long time ago from Lanus," Morales wrote in an email Monday. "But what he has done this season is outstanding. I’m so happy for him because he is a great representative of Argentina in MLS."