PORTLAND, Ore. – When the Portland Timbers announced they had acquired Argentinean midfielder Diego Valeri during the offseason, head coach Caleb Porter said they had found just what the club needed.
And after Portland’s dominating offensive performance in their season-opening 3-3 draw on Sunday against the New York Red Bulls at JELD-WEN Field, Valeri showed he could be just that – and a whole lot more.
With a Goal of the Week nomination, another shot that led to a goal off a deflection and an MLSsoccer.com Team of the Week selection all in his debut, he made enough of an impression that Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke told media after match that Valeri’s talent could make him “one of the best players in the league.”
So just who is Valeri and how did he end up in the Rose City?
Before suiting up for the Timbers, the 26-year-old virtually spent his entire professional career with his hometown team, Club Atlético Lanús of Argentina’s Primera División. He was regarded highly enough that he earned his first cap with the Argentine national team on March 16, 2011, and he’s earned two more since. All three have been starts.
He popped up on the Timbers radar when his agent began making inquiries about a move to MLS. General manager Gavin Wilkinson did some initial research and decided Valeri was indeed the type of player the club was looking for: a true No. 10 who possesses the creativity, talent and leadership to unlock the potential of the club’s younger attacking players, perhaps none more important than third-year midfielder Darlington Nagbe.
A trip to Argentina late last year to watch him play was all it took to aggressively begin the courtship.
“[We felt] he was somebody that would be special for us,” Wilkinson said. “Most players in the Argentinean league are well respected for how resilient they are, how hardworking they are, how honest. And for us it made sense on many, many levels.”
When the talks began, it didn’t take much to convince Valeri on a change of scenery. Wilkinson gave credit to Valeri’s agent for speaking of MLS in a positive but honest way, and said there have so far been no surprises by Valeri or the team. It also didn’t hurt that one of Valeri’s friends and countrymen, Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales, vouched for the league.
“He was made well aware of MLS, the many pros that there are relative to the league and how complex the league is in many ways,” Wilkinson said. “He was very excited by the opportunity. It’s one thing that he embraced and we embraced and we were able to make it happen.”
Morales also happens to be the first player Wilkinson named when asked to compare Valeri’s skill-set.
“He’s a special player, and he has a big upside,” Wilkinson said.
As it turned out, it took just one game in the league to show it.
As the point man in Porter’s 4-3-3 formation, Valeri was the catalyst behind a refreshing offensive performance for the Timbers, who tied a club record at JELD-WEN Field with 21 shots in the draw against New York.
They also boasted a 63-percent possession rate, congruent with the team’s new philosophy of controlling the tempo in the Porter regime. He also helped set up the first goal of the season for Nagbe, who finished off a rebound when Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles spilled Valeri's knuckling shot from just outside the box.
And of course there’s his own goal (above), a volleying move to get past New York defender Jámison Olave and a pitch-perfect finish that sent JELD-WEN into a frenzy.
“He was tremendous,” said Porter (right, with Valeri). “He is worth every penny. He’s gifted. He’s capable of pulling a rabbit out of the hat at any given moment. He’s very clever in tight spaces and he can unlock teams. He’s going to be a handful this year.”
Added Petke: “He finds these little gaps, he turns on a dime, he sets plays up. Unbelievable. Very impressed with him.”
An added benefit for Portland, Wilkinson said, has been Valeri’s personality. Wilkinson said he’s one of the team’s hardest workers and has displayed leadership through his calming influence on the field.
“He’s got a ton of ability and I think the players acknowledge how talented he is and how special he is,” Wilkinson said. “But he’s also extremely, extremely humble.”
He said he’s in the same mold as the team’s other Designated Player, defensive midfielder Diego Chara, a no-nonsense, gritty worker.
“Diego Valeri is another perfect DP for us,” Wilkinson said. “He works hard, he’s honest, but he has a little bit of something different that not many players in this league present. He has a special part and he is exciting for us but he also has the core principles of what we need. He is a hard-working, honest player.”
After the game, Valeri spoke to the press using his limited English, which he said is ever-improving, to say the “team played like a team.” And with Valeri leading the way, the Timbers are hoping it turns into something special.
“I think by his own admission, he’s still getting acclimated to the league,” Wilkinson said. “He’s still got a lot of work left to do, and with him he will continue to do that work.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.