PORTLAND, Ore. – Pin down decision-makers at top teams across North America and you’ll be able to crib together a list of terms and personality traits which fall under “core values.” For some teams, those values are aspirational. For others, the terms truly are foundational, a status that can be seen in the actions of the club.
That’s the larger context, for today’s news. In the signing of fullback Zarek Valentin to a contract extension, the Portland Timbers are not only rewarding a player who brings value to the field. No player gets a contract unless they have value between the endlines. But during his three years in Portland, Valentin has come to represent something much more than his place in the lineup. In so many ways, he’s come to represent what the Timbers are about.
Through that lens, today’s signing comes down to two questions, each almost existential: What do the Portland Timbers want to represent, as a team? And what does Zarek Valentin, in terms of his life’s next steps, value most?
“This is a situation where Zarek definitely wanted to be in Portland, and we definitely wanted to keep him here for the foreseeable future,” Timbers general manager and president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson says. “Him making a commitment to the club and us making a commitment to him makes sense.”
When Valentin arrived in the Rose City before the 2016 season, he had been away from MLS for three years, developing his game abroad after splitting his first two professional seasons between Chivas USA and Montreal. He was still highly-regarded, having been the fourth overall pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, but he was also in search of a foundation, professionally. Three countries and three teams in five years makes it difficult to establish roots.
“Portland has been great to myself and my family since we got here,” Valentin said, earlier this season. “We’ve developed a special bond to the city that’s continually growing, every day.”
That bond has gone a long way to cementing Valentin’s new roots. Though there were no guarantees of playing time when he reunited with college coach, Caleb Porter, before the 2016 season, Valentin has gone on to become a regular starter, building on two years of competition to, in 2018, set a career high for appearances (32), starts (30) and minutes (2721) in a regular-season.
Ahead of his fourth year in green, Valentin will solidify his personal foundations. He is set to marry his fiancé, Liz, this month, with the two, according to him, seeing Portland as their long-term home. Now, with the new phase of his career secured, Valentin can continue giving back to a place which is ready to enhance that bond.
“This community has given the team so much, more than it could ever ask for, game in and game out,” Valentin said. “It’s the least we can do to give back to them.”
In terms of “core values,” Valentin’s on-field numbers tell only part of his story. At 27 years old, the Lancaster, Pa., native has become an integral piece of the Timbers’ locker room, with the effusive personality that made him a favorite within the Akron Zips squad having time to become a true connector in Portland. Being bilingual, Valentin has the ability to reach all corners of the dressing room, but it’s the way that he uses that ability that truly distinguishes him. A key communicator on the field and off, Valentin’s developed a special kind of leadership in a squad that doesn’t lack for role models.
That’s what makes Valentin’s importance so difficult to understand, the farther you get from the squad’s core. In a team that features players like Diego Chara, Diego Valeri and Liam Ridgewell, the traditional leadership roles are accounted for. But there are still places where charisma, communication, and caring can win out. In the bridge between young and old, English and Spanish, community and players, Valentin has carved out a place that, within the current team, may truly be unparalleled.
While that may not make him a role model, his work off the field does. One of the Timbers’ 2018 Stand Together Community MVPs, Valentin saw his efforts get league-wide attention when he was nominated for the 2018 MLS WORKS Humanitarian of the Year honor, though that doesn’t mean his contributions should go unstated. His #RibbonsZ effort to help local LGBTQ youth earned him plaudits across social media, but his work continues in local children’s hospitals, as well as with the team’s other Stand Together efforts. Whether it’s taking the lead in welcoming Mustafa Abed to team practices or helping other Timbers fans who, through their hardest moments, see the team as their salvation, Valentin is as willing as anybody to lead on that front, earning his place as part of the Timbers’ emotional core.
People like Wilkinson rarely speak on such effusive terms. At least, in public, there is a tone those of his rank are supposed to evoke. But within that tone, you can see that the heights of Portland’s organization recognize Valentin’s value – a value that extends well beyond his on-field numbers.
“He is not only somebody that gives us options at several positions at a very, very consistent level,” Wilkinson starts, “but he is somebody who is highly involved in the community – something that has significant value, for us, as a club.”
That value was recognized with this new deal, one which took a commitment from both sides. For Valentin, his willingness to stay in Portland showed a love for community and club. And for the Timbers, the new deal represents how much they want all sides to continue that love.
Looks like Valentin and the Timbers will stay a part of each others’ lives, “for the foreseeable future.”