Diego Chara, training, 11.14.20
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Though it's been a long time coming, Diego Chara's Best XI recognition welcomed

It’s hard to imagine Diego Chara caring about today’s honor as much as others will. We’ve seen the other times he’s had individual honors – his 2019 MLS All-Star Game appearance, or the various milestones he’s hit during his decade in Portland – and they’ve never phased him much. There’s always joy and pride in his reaction, but it’s joy that tends to match the room. When he celebrated his 300th Timbers appearance at the MLS is Back Tournament, Chara’s pride came from his teammates’ love as much as that big, round number.

Making an MLS Best XI is a little different, though. It’s an honor that’s not supported to be about longevity, even if it’s still about excellence. Instead, making a Best XI is about recognition. It’s about that year’s panel choosing you above the various others who’ve distinguished themselves. It doesn’t make you a better player, or a worse one. It makes you one that’s chosen.

Today, Chara was chosen, and chosen for the first time. Today, the 34-year-old left the discussion of best players to never grace the league’s annual, recognized lineup. Today, for the first time, Chara was voted to MLS’s Best XI, his career high six assists drawing attention to the quality he’s had throughout his time in Portland.

“[He’s] probably the best defensive midfielder our league’s ever had,” MLS’s Coach of the Year, the Philadelphia Union’s Jim Curtin, said this summer, opening many eyes to another standout season from Chara.

To say that things like Best XI recognition don’t matter to Chara would probably be an overstatement. We all want to be appreciated for our work, especially when our work demands so much. But like many of his peers, “Best XI honors” wouldn’t be high on the list of reasons Chara’s reached his level. Those reasons involve goals that are much more personal, more immediate, left less in the hands of others.

But in terms of those others, Chara’s fans and teammates may react the same way they did when he made the All-Star team last year, or the other times he gets noticed beyond Portland. That reaction has become a combination of ‘tell us about it,’ ‘yeah, we know’ and ‘what took you so long,’ There’s an obvious protectiveness there; a defensiveness, too. Both sit between the lines in this post. If we’re honest, there’s also some resentment at a star being habitually overlooked.

Being overlooked, though, is part of life as a defensive midfielder in Major League Soccer. Kyle Beckerman, a Real Salt Lake legend and U.S. international who has played more minutes than any field player in league history, has never made a Best XI. It seems unconscionable, but it’s true, and it might not be entirely unfair. We’d have to go reexamine all of his seasons to be sure. Still, Beckerman is a 58-time international, was part of one of the best teams in MLS history (the early 2010s RSL), and he still couldn’t earn that love.

Former Seattle Sounder FC mainstay Osvaldo Alonso has been honored once, as has Nashville’s Dax McCarty. Chris Armas (five times) and Shalrie Joseph (four) and the only midfielders of their kind to consistently earn the chorus’s love, but those honors came in the league’s more formative years, before the Charas of the world started coming to MLS’s shores. Since then, particularly with MLS’s massive expansion, competition for spots in the league’s Best XI has increased drastically. Armas and Joseph played in a different world.

It’s also possible that defensive midfielders have become worse since the times of Armas and Joseph, but that’s unlikely. What’s more likely is that the increased investment Major League Soccer has made in its star, skilled players has lured eyes elsewhere; to the places where the Josef Martínezes and Carlos Velas of the league collect their numbers. They’re the places where another Timbers pillar, Diego Valeri, has won acclaim, but although Portland has seen the value of both Diegos, where has the attention been for Chara?

Fans see the impact on the field. The standings feel it in the results, with the Timbers’ record notoriously, unfathomably bad when Chara isn’t on the field. Championship hopes have evaporated amid his loss, as they did in 2017. Peers and coaches praise his contributions, but All-Star berths or Best-XI appearances? His 2020 assists hint otherwise, but in reality, Chara’s season wasn’t so different than the last one, or the one before. And until now, he was on Beckerman’s course.

It’s a reminder to maintain perspective on today’s honor, though thankfully, it’s a perspective that most had 24 hours ago. There didn’t need to be a Best XI spot to make Chara a legend, a Hall of Famer, a player worthy of Greatest 25 lists, Mount Rushmores or pantheons. The foundations he’s helped build, the following he’s helped cultivate? They mean more than Best XI honors. The player and person Timbers fans knew yesterday is the same player and person Chara is, now. He’s just slightly more recognized than he was, before.

When there is an MLS Hall of Fame, that recognition is going to matter, because at least one voter will invariably say, “but he only made one Best XI,” And that tweet will force eyerolls from the coaches who faced him, the analysts who broke down film, or opposing players left shocked when Chara darted upfield. Beckerman will be in that shrine one day, as will Alonso and McCarty, and even without today’s honor, Chara would, too. But from those tasked with acknowledging the league’s history, it’s good to see this new course. It’s good to see the rest of the MLS world catch up.

It probably took that career high in assists to make today’s selection possible. Curtin’s spotlight certainly helped. But after being overlooked for so long, this was a "by any means necessary” scenario. If the recognition’s late, at least it’s arrived at all. Chara can carry it as a sign of vindication, as those who’ve known for so long will, too.

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