Exclusive with Portland Timbers star Diego Valeri: "I wanted to come to MLS badly"
"Great goal, Dieguito!"
That's the way Argentine sports daily Olé greeted news of the Goal of the Week candidate scored by countryman Diego Valeri on his MLS debut against the New York Red Bulls last Sunday.
Chances are they'll be following the new Portland Timbers man regularly down in South America. Because if you ask anyone who knows the Argentine league about Valeri, it's easy to figure out that the quick, creative, 26-year-old is held in high esteem back home. In fact, there's still some surprise that he emigrated to MLS to begin with. But the US is where Valeri always wanted to be and he even started learning English a year ago with a view to an MLS move.
"I wanted badly to come here for the league, for how it's growing and for Portland," Valeri told FutbolMLS.com's Tiro Libre podcast in an extensive interview. "I had this great desire [to play in MLS] and Portland went to see me a few times in Argentina and when they offered it to me, I didn't doubt it."
After Sunday's display, the MLS clubs that passed on Valeri a year ago will be kicking themselves. But the Timbers didn't hesitate, making him one of their top targets in the offseason.
The Argentine playmaker was impressed by how ambitious the Timbers were and it was enough for him to spurn offers from Turkey, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. He only had eyes for MLS.
"The key was that Portland is a real serious organization," he said. "It's a club that has history although it's new to MLS. I liked the idea of coming here and to win things with the Timbers. Looking to the future, I was interested in that: to come here and to win things with the Timbers.
"Portland is a new club with clear objectives and that's fundamental for a soccer player, especially at my age," he continued. "Being able to win trophies over time is important for a young player and everything lined up for me to come. … This a league that's going to grow a lot because of what it has and how they work here."
GOAL: Valeri's shot too hot to handle
Who did the Timbers get exactly? Valeri is a creative player who has three caps with Argentina, featured on a Copa América roster and probably would have seen more time with the albiceleste if it wasn't because the likes of Lionel Messi, Javier Pastore and Ángel di María were ahead of him in the pecking order.
Valeri has also played in Europe, on loan with Porto (he wanted more playing time than what they gave him) and Almería (the team struggled both on and off the field), and as recently as 2011 Valeri was voted one of the top three players in the Argentine league alongside Juan Román Riquelme and Rodrigo Braña.
But he's had the MLS seed planted in his head ever since watching the LA Galaxy play New York at The Home Depot Center while on a preseason trip in the USA with Lanús. Then when he heard good things from his friend at Real Salt Lake, Javier Morales — "He always spoke to me [about MLS] with a smile on his face," says Valeri, whose pro debut came when he subbed in for Morales at Lanús — and his coach at Lanús, Argentine idol and Crew legend Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
Schelotto was fully aware of the impact player that he was about to loan out for a year to the Timbers (Portland has the option make a full transfer). But he gave Valeri the green light.
"I had a long talk with him," Valeri said of his discussion with Schelotto. "I spoke to him and he wasn't going to stand in the way of my personal desire to come here to play. … It's the United States and [Schelotto] said that he wasn't going to have any problem with me doing this because it's a unique opportunity for me."
And Valeri is not taking a moment of it for granted. Along with his wife and young daughter, he's in love with the "very green, very beautiful and very natural" city that is Portland and the respect he is shown from the locals.
"People live well and calm," said the man who says he studies spiritual and theological topics in his spare time. "Hopefully I can be here for a long time. Because Portland is really beautiful and as I said before, we can win things in the future."