Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said star playmaker Diego Valeri would start Saturday against Chivas USA, rather than be rested for playoffs, to get him back in “sync” with the team.
To say that mission was accomplished would be an understatement.
Valeri, who has not played a full game since Aug. 25 due to an adductor strain, put an exclamation point on his first season in MLS with two goals and an assist in the first 34 minutes in the Timbers’ runaway 5-0 victory at the StubHub Center.
“Honestly, it couldn’t have worked out better if we scripted it,” Porter told MLSsoccer.com in a postgame phone conversation.
Saturday’s game against lowly Chivas could have easily been considered to be an opportunity to continue Valeri’s recovery, but Porter said his offensive centerpiece “turned a corner and felt great” in the days leading up to the game.
And considering the fact that a win would guarantee Portland the Western Conference championship and bypass a potential midweek elimination game between the No. 4 and 5 seeds, Porter didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
His gamble paid off big – leading to the Timbers’ highest goal output of the season and most lopsided victory with their fifth clean sheet in the last six games.
“You could say it was a bit of risk to start him and play him,” Porter said. “But in the end, if we didn’t play him and don’t win, then we play in the play-in game. And for us to be able to jump right into the second round … that’s huge. Like I said, if we rested him and then we play in the playoffs and he’s not played with the group and he’s not in a rhythm, maybe he doesn’t play well. So I think it all worked out perfect.”
Not only did Valeri – who also came through his 45-minute shift no worse for the wear, Porter said – show he hasn’t lost a step, he seemingly toyed with Chivas from the first whistle.
His opening act came in the 16th minute on a coolly struck goal off a poor clearance in the 16th minute. It was his second goal in the 29th minute that will undoubtedly wind up on the season highlight reels, a perfectly struck chip over the head of Chivas goalkeeper Tim Melia after he collected an errant pass and maneuvered into open space at the top of the area.
His assist was a thing of beauty, as well. In the 34th minute, he took a long ball down the right wing from defender Mamadou “Futty” Danso, tossed aside Chivas defender Josue Soto and nutmegged Carlos Bocanegra with a clever delivery into the box to Rodney Wallace for the goal.
“I think you saw his quality in that first half, in case you forgot over the last several games because he’s been injured or out,” Porter said. “I think everybody was reminded, including us, just how special he is. It’s hard to do much better than that in 45 minutes. I think what you saw with him tonight is he was ready to get back in there.”
With 10 goals and 13 assists, Valeri becomes the first Timbers player in their MLS era to record double digit goals and assists in a season and is currently only the second player in the league to accomplish the feat this year. (LA's Robbie Keane is the other.)
His performance also highlighted one of the biggest turnarounds for a club in MLS history. The Timbers plus-21 goal differential is the biggest reversal in league history, improving from minus-22 last year. And before the Timbers would ultimately tack on two more goals in the second half, Valeri and Porter walked off the pitch at halftime with their arms around each other, sharing a few celebratory words.
“First of all, I just said, ‘Wow,’” Porter said of their conversation. “Then I just said, ‘I think you’ve done your part, time to get you out and get you ready for the playoffs.’”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.