BEAVERTON, Ore. – Portland Timbers fans can be forgiven for seeing Claude Dielna as a minor mystery. Though the French defender is 31 years old, he’s spent less than two seasons in Major League Soccer, and those were across the country, with the New England Revolution. His playing life before that included stops in Greece, England, Slovakia and Romania after being groomed in his home country, hardly the type of journey that draws eyes from Cascadia.
For Dielna, that experience may prove one of his greatest virtues, with the lessons accrued over 13 years as a professional expected to augment the relative youth on the backline of Julio Cascante (25), Modou Jadama (24) and Bill Tuiloma (23), as well as the present of fellow Parisian Larrys Mabiala. Though most discussion of starting spots is futile (if irresistible) in late January, Dielna is expected to compete for time in Portland’s starting XI when the regular season begins on March 2 in Colorado.
Before then, Timbers fans will get a crash course in the qualities of their team’s newest center back. Here are five things to know about the recently-acquired Dielna:
Dielna agrees on the scouting report
The rationale for bringing in a player with Dielna’s profile has highlighted his experience, versatility, ability to play left-center back, as well as the mere depth his quality brings to the team’s defensive corps. That he didn’t require a long-term commitment helped, GM and president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson alluded on Tuesday, as the Timbers don’t want to block to the progress of Dielna’s younger counterparts.
“I’m a competitor,” he said, when asked to provide his own scouting report. “This is the important thing, for me. I try to be a leader on the pitch; outside the pitch, too, (leadership) is very important. If I could say one thing about me, it’s that I’ve come here to win trophies.”
The leadership part, though, is at the forefront of Dielna’s mind, with the former Olympiacos defender acknowledging, “That’s why I’m here.”
“I’m here to bring my experience, my mindset …,” he said. “I know I’m playing for a club that likes to win trophies … Hopefully, I will help.”
He’s also a big fan of life in the States
“Before I came to MLS, I came to the United States, many years ago,” he explained, when asked about his time in the U.S. Life in his new country began with a summer-2017 arrival, but his first exposure to North America came long before.
“When I was in France, when I was in England, every vacation, I was in America,” he said. “Because I love America.”
What he loves most highlights a global reputation which, established long ago, has continued to endure. It’s the American mentality that appeals to Dielna, somebody who, according to him, wants to let his play on the field do the talking for him. He wants the perception of him to be a reflection of his work.
“I love the mindset,” he lauds. “I love the people. I love the whole vibe, because you can work hard. In this country, I see everyone work hard. It doesn’t matter if you work, (or) if you’re a player. Anything. A journalist. Everyone takes their job very seriously, and when they are done, they have put everything in.”
It’s why the country has such a vibrant sports scene, he says. It’s also why soccer in the United States, in his mind, is destined to grow.
“You can see America is a country with a lot of different sports: NBA, NFL,” he notes. “All these competitive mindsets that we don’t have in the world, for example.
“Soccer in America, it’s growing very fast. I think in a few years, people will start to see how America will start to be bigger. Because you have a lot of players, and that’s why I think [MLS], in a few years, is going to be one of the biggest leagues.”
Major League Soccer has impressed him, thus far
Just as life in the U.S. has left a positive impression on Dielna, so has the state of Major League Soccer – though asking any active player about MLS can be a bit of a loaded question. Especially for those like Dielna, who’ve had options throughout their playing career, life in MLS represents an active choice. It’s rare for somebody to be truly candid if they think their choices have been poor.
Dielna’s outlook, though, reveals somebody seeing a thick silver lining around his move, as well as a person who continues to be positive about life on a new continent.
“I very much like the league,” he explains. “They have very, very good players. Very good atmosphere. I think MLS is one of the leagues we can see has everything you need to be successful.
“When I came to Timbers for the start of my first training, you can see the facilities are unbelievable. I played in England, before, and I don’t think many teams have these facilities. The team, the club, gives everything for the players, and now, it’s our job to win games.”
Moving to Portland was an easy decision
The focus on winning games reflects a player that’s entering the last phase of his career – somebody who is beyond soaking in the firsts of his youth. Trophies and winning are words that come frequently amid his responses, with Portland, according to him, giving him a good chance to achieve both.
“First of all, I know that the Timbers were a good team,” he said, when asked about his cross-country move. “The club was in the final, last season, and I knew the story of the club. It was a good opportunity to come in, and I know it’s a big club. That’s why I’m here.”
New England, to him, ceased offering those opportunities, with Dielna losing his place in head coach Brad Friedel’s team midway through the 2018 season. This year, Dielna has a different story to tell.
“I love football,” he explains. “When I wake up, I sleep, I love football, and I live football. That’s why I’m here. I’m here to play football. Nothing else …
“This season, I was excited to come back on the pitch, to smile again, and to show to everyone who I am. We’re going to see who is going to be the best … I believe in my teammates and the team. So, we’re going to see.”
Among his new teammates, a distant connection
If Dielna’s season lives up to his expectations, he’ll likely collect most of his minutes next to somebody he’s known of for at least 18 years.
“I knew Larrys for a long time,” Dielna explains about Larrys Mabiala, a potential center-back partner. “We played against each other when we were younger.”
Dielna estimated “younger” as 13 years old, when Mabiala was in Paris Saint-Germain’s academy. At the time, Dielna was at Racing Club de France, another Parisian team, located in the suburb of Colombes.
“Paris is small,” he says, miraculous eschewing irony when talking about a city of 2.2 million people. “When you’re young, you play so many games against each other.”
Most of Dielna’s first Timbers media scrum was serious, explanations of his time in New England and Portland demanding an intent tone. A mention of Mabiala, though, allows Dielna to go back to his childhood, letting his face reflect the love of the game he’d, later in the interview, explicitly evoke.
“He’s French, so we can talk easily, even if I don’t speak good English,” he says of Mabiala. “I think he will understand what I say. I’m very happy to meet and work with Larrys in Portland, with the Timbers.”