PORTLAND, Ore. – Diego Valeri declined to elaborate Sunday night, though the question posed in his postgame scrum carried a clear implication. After two games, two goals and two of his best performances of 2018, last season’s Landon Donovan Major League Soccer Most Valuable Player appears to be finding his stride at the right time of the Portland Timbers’ season.
He, however, just sees it as part of a day’s work.
“Nothing,” he said, when asked about what’s going right over his last two games. “It is my role, and I’m very happy about these results that we’ve got …
“Step-by-step, going to the final. That’s our goal, and we have an advantage, now.”
That advantage casts Portland with a 2-1 edge on rival Seattle Sounders FC ahead of Thursday, when the teams will wage the second and final game of their Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference semifinal (7:30pm PT, FS1 | Match presented by Carls Jr.).
Valeri played a defining part of getting his team to this point, scoring twice last Wednesday in Portland’s 2-1, Knockout Round victory at FC Dallas. On Sunday, his throughball for Jeremy Ebobisse set the Portland striker up for a crucial, game-tying goal.
“He showed his quality today, again …,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, after the match. “[An assist] in the first half – great pass behind the space for Jebo, and [on the second goal], just a tremendous play of sacrifice. Going and believing in the fact that he was going to get to the ball. He got there twice and the rebound got to [Sebastián Blanco] and he finished in a great way … the performance of Valeri once again was very positive for the team.”
Valeri’s strong start to the 2018 postseason takes him to four goals and six assists in 13 career playoff appearances, numbers that are in line with his regular-season totals (68 goals, 65 assists, 180 games). That the four-time All-Star has maintained those rates against the postseason’s stiffer competition is noteworthy, and with his assist on Sunday, Valeri has gotten on the scoresheet in six of his last seven playoff appearances.
The penchant for delivering in the playoffs was embodied by his first goal against Dallas, one which, from 25 yards out, found the only room available between FCD’s Jesse Gonzalez and the goalkeeper’s right post. In a game where the first goal would mean so much, Valeri delivered in the 23rd minute, with his team’s first real chance of the match. That it was Valeri who stood over it, before the dead ball was struck, carried a feeling of the inevitable.
Now, Valeri is slated to return to Seattle – to a place where he helped the Timbers to playoff success in 2013; a place where he recorded three assists in Portland’s only regular-season visit, this season. Instead of thinking about his individual success, though, Valeri’s focused on the days leading up to his team’s next challenge.
“I think it is good that we don’t have a long flight, and we can rest, now after the game …,” he explained. “It’s all about resting and preparing, in our minds, for the most likely game, and then performing on Thursday, being focused … and fighting for that goal that we have.”
That fight gets a lot easier with Valeri in his current form. Throughout the course of the 2018 season, the Argentine creator has been cast as an attacking midfielder, a forward, and as a co-creator behind a striker, with Blanco. His goal production dropped by more than half from a year ago (21 to 10), speaking not only to the positional and stylistic changes that came with a new coaching staff’s approach but also to how special 2017 was. Although the 12 assists Valeri collected were his highest total since 2014, it was never reasonable to expect last season’s numbers.
Lately, however, Valeri has threatened to do so, even if the sample size since Portland switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation is small. In his four since being cast back into the formation’s lone playmaker’s role – four games against playoff teams (Real Salt Lake, twice; FC Dallas, Seattle) – Valeri has two goals and three assists. Thriving as the team’s focal point, Valeri has also created platforms for players like Blanco and Ebobisse to excel, with Seattle head coach Brain Schmetzer singling out the two Argentines as players who “showed their quality, again” in leg one.
That “again,” for Valeri, goes beyond just one leg. It goes to this season’s Knockout Round and all the way back to 2015, when his four assists in five game led Portland on an MLS Cup run.
Even in that season, when he was initially hampered by injuries, Valeri found a way to be the best version of himself come the postseason. Now, three years later, Valeri appears poised to make another defining impact on the MLS Playoffs.