iPTFC, Diego Chara, 6.24.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Inside PTFC | MLS finally recognizes what Portland's always known about Chara

There’s an alternate universe which, thanks to Monday morning’s announcement, we’ve finally started to move away from. For too long, it looked like the timeline we were living on, one where future MLS fans would need explanations for the inexplicable. It’s the one where Troy, instead of seeing flames when returning with pizza, saw defeated soul after defeated soul, lying confused, unconscious, covered with green and gold scarves that memorialized their exhaustion.

It’s one where, generations into the future, when Major League Soccer is much more popular than it is now, we’d have to tell the game’s new fans why a player with no All-Star appearances, no Best XI nods and no major league-wide honors might have been the best the league’s ever seen at his position; or, at a minimum, in that conversation. How could that possibly be, our children and grandchildren will ask, that somebody like Diego Chara could be so important but, in your time, Grandperson, so overlooked?

Chara’s historical context might be something to build to, but in terms of the present day, there’s an emerging consensus about his value. “Diego Chara is the best defensive midfielder our league has, and I think you saw that tonight,’ Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin said last month, an assessment that both rebuked the previous eight years and, in its lack of sensationalism, was only met with knowing nods.

Stop and consider that, for a moment. At the time, Curtin’s team was top of the Eastern Conference, and he went out of his way to make a bold, definitive claim about an opposing player. “What,” the league zeitgeist asked, never. Instead, the mood was more of an, “oh, yeah. That’s true. Moving on.”

It’s an assessment that was echoed by Bobby Warshaw at the league’s website before the season, when he was ranking the league’s best players at the position, and foreshadowed by some of the league’s other voices when they named him the best at his position last season. Curtin’s not alone on Chara Island. Increasingly, Chara Island is running out of room.

Sometimes the discussion takes on a different form, like when the terms shift from value to replaceability. In any form, they’re deserved plaudits, as were the MVP murmurs Chara garnered in the middle of the 2018 season. But for people in Portland, it all might also sound a bit strange. Though it’s just being noticed by the national media, Chara’s been playing at this level for many, many years, now.

It’s all part of the claim about Chara being one of the best deep-lying midfielders in league history, one that starts by acknowledging that, if you’re just now seeing his value, you’ve probably undervalued Chara for too long. Does that lack of recognition date back two years, three, we should ask. Perhaps it dates all the way back to 2013, when the Timbers enjoyed their first spell of significance near the top of MLS. Because if it truly does date back six or more seasons – and if Chara truly has been among the league’s best sixes, eights, or whatever you want to call him for most of this decade – then it is not stretch to imply he might be the best deep-lying midfielder the league has ever seen.

To which, he may be the best defensive midfielder at MLS’ deepest, most competitive, most talented moment. If, nationally, we’re just now recognizing his value, that’s fine – better late than never – but let’s not pretend that this version of Diego Chara is a new phenomenon. Instead, everybody that’s jumping on this bandwagon now, tell everyone how truly absurd it is that, in the year 2019, we have to describe this man as a first time MLS All-Star.

Part of the problem here is the numbers. In the future, on that parallel plane where we’ll have to explain why Chara was so overlooked, the public space will be full of data describing the value of a must-win tackle when your team is about to be outnumbered. Lose that battle, and an opponent’s chance at scoring increases by a quantifiable amount. Beyond proprietary spaces, we’re not there yet. That quantifiable is still, well, not quantified. But when your grandchildren ask to explain Diego Chara, you’ll be able to back your claims with those numbers.

We’ll know how many more goals you can expect when a perfectly timed challenge turns one team’s mundane possession into a four-on-two going the other way.

There’ll be leaderboards ranking the value of midfield runs that add an extra player to the attack when a team needs it most, …

… and yes, there will even be metrics that tell us how much a team’s chances of winning improved because a player decided to take a foul or a yellow card at an opportune moment. In that future, the question will be less why we keep talking about Diego Chara than why we didn’t talk about him more when he was still on the field.

Chara stats, 2013-present
Year GP MP G A Pass% Tackles (pg) Inter. (pg)
2019 12 1062 0 1 90.11 2.6 1.3
2018 27 2955 2 1 88.5 2.7 1.4
2017 29 2576 1 1 89.1 3.4 1.5
2016 30 2601 0 1 84.7 3.7 1.8
2015 32 2840 3 0 86.3 3.8 2.2
2014 31 2701 2 4 85.6 4.4 1.8
2013 35 3098 0 2 85.9 3.9 2.2

(1 - ninth in MLS, this season)

We’re not in that future yet, which partially explains why Monday was so significant. In his ninth year in the league, a player that carries all the value of a prime Osvaldo Alonso, Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley, or Dax McCarty has finally been honored with an All-Star nod. Those players have combined for 15 All-Star Game selections. Diego Chara now has one.

Prominent MLS deep-lying midfielders, "modern" era
Player GP MP G A ASG
Alonso, Osvaldo 293 24796 11 25 4
Beckerman, Kyle 474 39559 41 50 6
Bradley, Michael 171 15873 11 28 3
Chara, Diego 244 21412 9 19 1
McCarty, Dax 346 27941 19 57 2

If you want to claim the best version of Kyle Beckerman is better than the corresponding Chara, that’s reasonable. It might be right, it might be wrong, but either way, it’s within the realm of reason. All-Star picks aside, both legends have incredible resumés, including prolonged stretches where they were in the conversation as the best deep-lying midfielder in Major League soccer. 

What isn’t as reasonable is saying Beckerman is six All-Star nods better than Chara. SIX! And that Alonso is four better, while Bradley is three. Ilie Sánchez, Alexander Ring, Wilfried Zahibo were all named to the All-Star team last season. Kellyn Acosta was there the year before. How, over the last eight years, in the face of those selections, did we go so long without getting Chara into at least one squad?

It all points to something that isn’t the timeliest thing to mention but let’s be honest: Viewing a player’s value through the lens of All-Star Games is a very poor measure of his value. It is in Major League Baseball. It is in the NBA. It is in the NFL. Hey! Maybe this is a sign that Major League Soccer is “making it?” It’s All-Star Game selections? Eh, not that reliable.

The ballots are composed by a media group who, at this point in league history, have few members with a national brief. Hopefully that changes as outlets devote more money to soccer. The starters are subject to a popularity contest, and the selection of the reserves comes down to coaching staffs whose primary concerns surround preparing their squad for their next game. Maintaining a constant, ready-to-use list of the best players at each position probably didn’t come up in their job interviews.

It would be too much to call All-Star a pure popularity contest, because it is a point of recognition. It’s a point of literal value, as players’ bonuses are concerned. It informs the most casual of conversations people have about players’ value, and it’s part of the reason why it was so galling that last year’s coaches’ choices featured only one player from a team west of Dallas. If there was ever a selection that showed coaches, for all they know about the game, are most concerned with what’s directly in front of them, that was it.

Now, thanks to Orlando City head coach James O’Connor, we never have to worry about whether Chara will make an All-Star team. But with that recognition checked off, maybe we should also reconsider the words of people who are most familiar with Chara’s value.

“Not only is he important (to Portland) as a player,” teammate Sebastián Blanco said, last month, “but he has given the league a lot over his years (in MLS). He has been fundamental to MLS’ growth.”

Perhaps. We all know what Portland has meant to MLS. Where would the Timbers be without Diego Chara?

“In this club, everyone knows how valuable he is,” former midfield partner Jack Jewsbury told MLSSoccer.com, last year. “When you look back, I think some of the stats I’ve seen even early this year when he’s not on the field, there’s definitely a difference in the squad. That shows his importance to the club and this team.”

“I think Chara is a player for us that's irreplaceable," Timbers’ president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson told ESPN, last fall. "Every year we talk about, 'Can we find someone to be his successor?' I don't think it's possible. So we're going to ride Chara for as long as we possibly can."

Yes, those are all people that are pro-Chara. They’re people most likely to say the best things about him – exactly the kind of people a post like this would cite. But now, with Chara playing out his ninth year in Major League Soccer, their views are being echoed by the Curtins and Warshaws of the world, the league’s website and places like ESPN.com, among others. The same messages that were so local in 2013, 2014, when it seemed like only Portland was recognizing Diego Chara, are now being broadcast to a national audience. People are getting on board.

On the field, though, nothing has changed, much. Chara has certainly improved from his first years in the league – it would be insulting to the player to insinuate he hasn’t – but the level he’s at now isn’t so different than the one that helped the team to first in the West six years ago, a league title in 2015, another first-place finish in `17 and, last year, another Western Conference title. The rest of MLS may just be acknowledging it now, but Diego Chara? You are what we thought you were.

From here forward, that thought will include “MLS All-Star,” but while the honor matters, it doesn’t change anything we’ve always known. Diego Chara is not only one of the league’s best deep-lying midfielders, he’s one of the best the league has ever known. If that now means he gets to call himself an All-Star, well, that’s nice, too.

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