Diego Valeri #2, Timbers vs. Nashville, 3.8.20
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Diego Valeri spending time reading up on one of Argentina's greats: César Luis Menotti

César Luis Menotti is not a name that comes up during normal times around Portland soccer. But these are not normal times. Instead, we’re at a point where players have more time to pursue their passions; hence, Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri spending part of Tuesday’s video conference with media referencing a legend of Argentine soccer.

Menotti was the Albiceleste’s head coach in 1978 – the middle of a decade-long tenure that saw El Flaco deliver the country’s first World Cup. Before that, Menotti gained fame as a player, reaching the national team during a 10-year career which briefly, in the National Professional Soccer League, saw him touch down in New York. In time, his true legacy would be found on the sidelines, where he’d go on to manage Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and both Boca Juniors (twice) and River Plate.

Or, perhaps Menotti’s true legacy is in his influence, not his resume. While any manager who delivers his country’s first world title earns legendary status, Merotti did so in a way that leaves him remembered as much for his qualities as his accomplishments. A stylistic idealist, the Rosario native famously said “a team, above all, is an idea,” with his ideas revolving around the intricacy and skill inherent in an attack-based approach.

The philosophy proved a perfect complement for the time. Though Argentina’s style is often characterized by the approach of Menotti’s successor, 1986 World Cup-winner Carlos Billardo, El Flaco’s approach eschewed such brute pragmatisms. Instead, he sought soccer’s beauty. After Argentina was eliminated from the 1974 World Cup by the Netherlands’ Total Football, Menotti arrived to bring his country into the modern age. Four years later, on home soil and in a final against a Johan Cruyff-less Oranje, Menotti crafted his legend.

That 3-1 win alone would be enough to draw a line between two Argentine footballers, Menotti and Valeri, but in the descriptions of Menotti the person, there are other parallels. Menotti was a thinker, with profiles seemingly alternating adjectives: between philosophical and professorial; between studious and intellectual. A tall, thin appearance played into the role, as did the cigarettes he constantly smoked, even on the sidelines.

It’s difficult to imagine Valeri with such an indulgence, but philosophical? Yes. Professorial? At times. A thinker? Certainly, and perhaps most importantly for a soccer parallel, Valeri’s a thinker when it comes to the tactics his sport.

Thus Tuesday’s conversation about coaching. It was an unexpected topic when it came up during Valeri’s video conference, one attended by local, national, and international media, but two questions into the session, somebody asked, in Spanish: How do you occupy all the free time?

“What I am currently doing to take advantage of that time is studying,” he admitted. “I am currently taking an online course in César Luis Menotti’s school for coaching and strategic administration … I took some tests already and now I am taking a few video classes.”

When topics like this come up in media sessions with players like Valeri, or fellow Timbers Diego Chara and Sebastián Blanco, they tend to become recurring themes. Spanish speakers first, the Timbers’ most prominent players often reveal a new fact via their native tongue. A bilingual reporter will pick up on it and, to get a quote in English, ask a near-identical question, only in the players’ second language. Add in follow ups, usually in both languages, and what was unknown moments before comes to dominate the day’s session.

Such was the case on Tuesday. Initially, Valeri’s media availability felt normal. Almost too normal. There was an initial question about the state of his new world, but it was followed by a series of queries that could have been asked under any circumstance. One reporter wanted to know about the team’s 2015 title run. Another wanted Valeri’s thoughts on Mexican players coming to MLS. Yet another asked about Lionel Messi. It almost escaped everyone’s attention that, in response to the session’s second question, he mentioned the coaching courses, and he mentioned they carried Menotti’s name.

Eventually, as the session entered a second, more in-depth stage, the subject returned.

“I don’t know if I’m going to coach,” Valeri explained, sensing where the conversation might go. The courses he’s taking are from Argentina. He’d have to do work in the United States to get licensed in his new home. “I’m just having something else to be prepared, knowing that after our career, it’s going to be a different world … [The courses are] just to be prepared. I’m always open to learn.”

When Menotti came up toward the end of the session, Valeri described the coach’s approach as “universal,” and that his philosophy would apply to “any league.” Evaluating those labels is best left for another space, and by another person, but the willingness to apply those labels as well as Valeri’s comfort in doing so was itself very professoral. The Timbers’ icon was outlining the appeal of a coach who, while iconic, is rarely on topic within Major League Soccer.

In terms of chronology, the remarks come off as very studious, too. Valeri was born in 1986. Though Menotti still works for his country’s federation, his run as Argentina head coach ended shortly after the 1982 World Cup. Perhaps El Flaco’s legacy in Argentine soccer is like Vince Lombardi’s in NFL football, or John Wooden’s in college basketball. Still, how much does your favorite NFL fan know about Lombardi’s tactical approach?

For a sports media session, the topic was a rare one, though it wasn’t unheard of. Infrequently, athletes open up like this, inserting something memorable in a process that’s otherwise routine. Though Tuesday’s process happened in what’s still a strange way – a group video call, hosted from an athlete’s home – it was likely intended as a taste of normal. This is close to what, on a typical day at the Timbers Training Center, we’d normally do.

Within today’s normal, we got a glimpse of something new: some insight into a mindset that’s proven so potent on the field. From his old world, Menotti is having an influence on Valeri. And for a moment, Valeri explained that influence to Portland.