PORTLAND, Ore. – There was a lot of talk about Will Johnson’s questionable status coming into the Portland Timbers’ match Saturday against FC Dallas.
And as many expected, the Timbers captain and central midfielder was left off the 18 due to a shoulder injury he picked up last week. But it turns out, the Timbers have another playmaker in the middle of the park.
His name is Diego Valeri, and he made Johnson’s absence an afterthought in Portland’s 2-1 victory at JELD-WEN Field. The Argentinian playmaker, who is in his first season in the Rose City, assisted on both goals to increase his season total to 10, a Timbers MLS franchise record.
“He’s exactly what we thought he’d be and exactly what we wanted him to be,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said. “He’s a playmaker. He’s a final passer. He’s a guy that sets people up. That’s what you want out of your No. 10. … He’s the creator and the guy that should be setting guys up. He’s capable of scoring goals, but he’ll have more assists than goals.”
And Valeri chose an opportune night to give a little extra, in a crucial Western Conference matchup that allowed Portland to keep pace with first-place Real Salt Lake. The Timbers' win sets up a top-of-the-table showdown between the two teams at JELD-WEN Field on Wednesday night, with Portland now just three points behind RSL.
“I thought [Valeri] was big-time for us,” said holding midfielder Ben Zemanski, who played in Johnson’s normal spot. “He played some final balls and he had a couple chances for himself that he was a little unlucky on. I thought he performed very well for us, he defended well, he attacked well. He was a true maestro tonight.”
Valeri’s first assist came on a perfectly placed corner that found forward Ryan Johnson in the middle of the six for an easy header goal in the 26th minute. And then in the 33rd minute, Valeri made a run to the edge of the penalty area, where he found a streaking Darlington Nagbe on the right wing for the Timbers’ second goal.
In addition to his two assists, Valeri also had two shots, including an open look in the 20th minute after Zemanski found him open in the box with space and time. He’d clearly love to have that one back, after he shanked it wide, but otherwise his night was spotless.
“Ryan Johnson, Darlington, they are very fast and I just try to get the ball into the six because this is my job,” Valeri said in his ever-improving English.
Valeri has been so valuable, in fact, he’s assisted on Portland’s last six goals. It’s clear the payoff from his offseason acquisition on loan from Argentine side Club Atlético Lanús – which was recently made permanent when the team announced he had been locked up with a multi-year contract – has been huge.
“He’s been tremendous here,” Porter said. “And we’re real happy to have him here for quite a few more years.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.