Has Portland Timbers playmaker Diego Valeri made his case for MLS MVP?

Diego Valeri

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USA Today Sports

BEAVERTON, Ore. – There was the string where he assisted on eight straight Portland Timbers goals.

Or the time when he subbed into a game, functioning at less than a 100 percent due to an injury, and singlehandedly rescued a point with a game-tying goal.

He has either assisted on or scored all of Portland’s goals in eight different games this year.

Yes, there appears to be no end to the well of sublime performances in which Portland Timbers midfield artist Diego Valeri can draw on.

And his latest effort – a chip shot goal early in a critical Western Conference match last Friday against the Colorado Rapids, which proved to be the game winner in a 1-0 victory – was yet another reminder that the 27-year-old Argentinean just might be the front runner for the league’s MVP award in just his first season in MLS.

“Diego has been a revelation with this club,” midfielder and team captain Will Johnson said. “I love playing with the guy, and it must be a real treat for the city of Portland to watch this guy; he’s special. … But he’s so humble. It’s ridiculous for as good he is.”

To make the case, his stats do a lot of the talking.

He is tied for the league lead with 12 assists and is tied for 13th with eight goals, propelling the Timbers to their best ever season since joining the league three years ago. His goal-assist total is tied for third, trailing only Robbie Keane (13 goals, 11 assists) and Camilo Sanvezzo (16 goals, five assists).

But it’s when Valeri is not on the field when his true value is exemplified.

As he continues to recover from a recent hamstring injury, Valeri has come on as a second-half substitute against Toronto FC and Chivas USA. Against a struggling Toronto side on Sept. 7, the Timbers were trapped in a close, 1-0 battle late on before Valeri came on for the final 15 minutes and assisted on a goal and scored another in what finished as a 4-0 rout.

Then against Chivas the next week, the Timbers were trailing 1-0 at halftime and in danger of losing to the team with the league’s worst record. But Valeri came in after the break and scored five minutes later to at least salvage a point.

“I'm biased. I love him,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said. “I think he's one of the best players in the league, no question about it. … I can tell you this, he cares more about winning than any individual accomplishment, and that's one of the reasons we love him. He's very humble, a team guy.

“He tells me almost every week, 'Coach, we're going to win championships here.' He's a great player and a great person."

The fact that Valeri has been such a revelation has come as somewhat of a surprise, considering the adjustment period many foreign players undergo before seeing success in MLS.

Porter, who said he wasn’t sure what to expect considering this is also his first year in the league, credits it to a number of things.

He said there was instant chemistry in the locker room. Valeri has undergone a crash course in learning English from the day he arrived in the Rose City, showing a willingness to be a part of the team. Porter also credited player relations manager Pablo Moreira for helping the team’s many Spanish speaking players transition into their new home by helping them open bank accounts, find housing, etc.

This allowed Valeri, his wife and young daughter to immediately feel at home in the Rose City.

“When you have a bit of harmony off the field, and you feel comfortable there, you play better,” Porter said. “And I think that’s happened with him here.”

Even Valeri didn’t know what to expect with his overseas experiment.

“I didn’t know I could play a season like that because it’s a long, long season,” Valeri told MLSsoccer.com of transitioning from Argentina’s top-flight league where he played for Club Atlético Lanús. “But I think it’s exciting because we have a very good team and that is nice because you have good people, nice people.”

But, perhaps most of all, Valeri is thriving because he fits perfectly into the team’s identity under their possession- and attack-orientated coach. At the attacking midfielder position, Valeri is the team’s offensive cog, taking pressure off their stable of athletic forwards in Darlington Nagbe, Rodney Wallace, Ryan Johnson and now recently signed fellow Argentinean Maximiliano Urruti to run the channels off the ball.

Including Valeri, Portland have five players who have scored at least six goals. Valeri, Ryan Johnson and Nagbe all have eight.

Valeri is both a facilitator and finisher and the reason Porter’s offense is among the league’s most dangerous.

“I try to train every day, thinking of the team, thinking of winning trophies and that for me is important because we are a team,” Valeri said. “And you have to do the best for you, for the team. I think success sometimes comes because you think about the team and think about the training work and then good things come along.”

There’s no question, Valeri will have a hand in the Timbers’ fate as they push for the playoffs and even the top spot in the conference. And while he may very well be the best player in the league and a savior to a city desperate for a winning team, Valeri absolutely does not have the ego to match.

“I am in a team, am in a club, and the most important thing for me is to be champion and get trophies,” he said. “We work for that, we work to be champions, and that’s most important. I prefer to be champion and not MVP.”

“Well, both things, “ he added, “but first to be champion, and then MVP.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.