BEAVERTON, Ore. – If you needed evidence, it came two weeks ago. Liam Ridgewell had left early in the first half, a quad injury depriving the Portland Timbers’ defense of its vocal, guiding force. Up one on Los Angeles FC and looking to preserve its lead, the team needed a leader who, in the face of talents like Carlos Vela, Lee Nguyen and Diego Rossi, could help see the match out. They needed somebody to step up.
It wasn’t the first time this year Zarek Valentin has done so. It was just the most obvious. Hands waving on each side of his head, Valentin was describing LAFC’s tactic to the newly substituted Andrés Flores. They’re overloading this flank, he said. They’re coming after us.
“I try to repeat things and keep people focused in certain moments …,” he explained. “I’m always trying to help organize and throw out ideas for certain players. I might not have the exact key to the lock, but if I give them some different thoughts from my perspective, maybe that will open up a key, and they’ll come to it alone, on their own.”
Over the course of the last three seasons, Valentin has established himself as a steady part of the Timbers’ culture. More broadly, though, he hasn’t gotten that much visibility for his contributions, perhaps because the most important of those don’t have a place in the scoresheet.
When, during the Timbers’ initial, down moments of the season, the team needed direction, Valentin was there, injecting an element of drive the team needed after they were rebuked by the LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls. He’s one of the key figures that links the English and Spanish-speaking parts of the locker room. With experience with three different MLS teams as well as a spell in Northern Europe, the 26-year-old has become a learned guide for much of the team’s new and young talent.
“The relationships outside the field help us to understand ourselves better on the field,” Flores, describing Valentin’s influence. “That’s a key for us. He’s an easy guy to understand, and he’s trying to bring us a closer team, so that’s good.”
He’s a glue guy – the type of player who, beyond the spotlights that gravitate toward a team’s frontline stars, make the engine of a team work. They may not get the same accolades as the team’s Diego Valeris or Fanendo Adis, but they take pride in the little things, prioritizing them so they’re not forgotten.
They weave together the culture, making sure a team functions on a social level. And, in their effort, they define the ethos of the squad.
Flores has quickly become one of those players, too, even if he’s only been a Timbers player for five months. But those five months have been a time of transition, from one coaching staff to another. As part of Giovanni Savarese’s teams with the New York Cosmos, the Salvadorian international learned what the current Timbers boss wants. Now, on the field, he’s served as an example.
“I have a different role, here,” Flores explained, implicitly referencing his time in New York. “Of course, there are players who have been here for a long time. We need to respect that time and all the things they’ve accomplished for the team … but I always try to put the work in, to try to do my best to help the team, and that’s how it’s been this entire time.”
When Savarese, on March 4 in Los Angeles, had to make his first changes as an MLS manager, Flores, a player who wasn’t even in the league a year ago, was among his first set of substitutes. When an undefeated New York City FC team come to Providence Park on April 22, Savarese inserted Flores into his XI, trusting him to execute a gameplan dramatically altered for that opponent. And, this weekend, when Portland needed somebody to step in for the World Cup-bound Andy Polo, it was Flores who got the call.
“I think, Gio trusts me a lot, and he knows what I can do inside the field,” Flores said, when about the glue-guy role. “He knows how I can help the team. He knows I can play different positions, and I can do it the right way, or the way he wants …. I feel like that kind of player (a glue guy), for the team.”
It’s not like the Timbers haven’t had glue guys, before. Diego Chara, in so many ways, fits the glue guy profile, if at an MLS-elite level. And Jack Jewsbury, somebody who played his way into Timbers lore, will forever be remembered as much for his leadership as his numerous other contributions on the field. But at a time when the Timbers have made a transition – not only bringing in a new training staff and the changes that go along with that – players like Chara, Valentin, Flores and others become all the more valuable. On and off the field, they help accelerate everything, making it easier for the club to get where it wants to go.
They just don’t get the same publicity as some of the team’s stars, and, in truth, that’s probably for good reason. How many people can win back-to-back MLS Goal of the Week awards, like Samuel Armenteros? Probably even fewer than can claim an MVP honor, as Valeri did last season. Sebastián Blanco has earned his league-wide accolades this season, while Davíd Guzman and Polo will enjoy part of sport’s ultimate spotlight this summer at the World Cup. They all get the attention they deserve.
Players like Flores and Valentin, though? They’re necessary for a club’s success, too. Have too many stars, and you forget to perform the glue guys’ functions. And, this year, as the Timbers have found more time for their two glue guys, they have been more successful on the field.