PORTLAND, Ore. – Sure, the Portland Timbers lost for the first time this preseason in Sunday’s 1-0 decision against the San Jose Earthquakes on the opening day of the Rose City Invitational at Providence Park (WATCH HIGHLIGHTS HERE).
But something much more important happened during the proceedings.
Midfielder Diego Valeri, MLS’ reigning Newcomer of the Year, saw his first game action of 2014, coming on in the 62nd minute. The most important piece of the Timbers’ attack has been recovering from offseason surgery for a sports hernia, an injury that hampered him over the final two months of the 2013 season.
“The nice thing is he looks himself,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter told the media after the game. “He’s still getting back in sync. He just started training Friday so he’s got only two training sessions under his belt. So getting him back in a flow and a rhythm with our team is going to take a little bit of time.”
He may not quite be in sync, but the Argentine playmaker didn’t look too far off.
In late action, he sprung fellow Argentine Gastón Fernández, a new weapon at Valeri’s disposal, with a clever chip pass. It left San Jose goalkeeper Jon Busch dead to rights, but the pass was just a touch too strong.
“It’s about the timing,” Valeri said after Monday’s training session. “It’s about getting more minutes to play [in] a real game because that’s an important thing. We work hard in training and it’s very similar to a real game, so I think I’m good.”
His teammates were certainly glad to have him back.
“When you play with him, mentally, you can see he’s far ahead of everyone,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe said. “Just for him to come out there and play in his first game against that team, I thought he did well.”
Valeri likely won’t play in Wednesday’s game against Jamaican side Portmore United, as Porter indicated he’d play mostly reserves in that game. But he’ll surely see more minutes in the tournament finale Saturday against the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Timbers’ final tune-up before their season opener March 8 against the Philadelphia Union (10:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE).
“Physically [he’s] good, and that’s a real positive,” Porter said. “Because ultimately if he’s healthy, he’ll get into a rhythm.”
Up until Friday, when he joined his teammates in a full training session for the first time since the surgery, Valeri had been working with the club’s training staff, along with winger Steve Zakuani, another newcomer to the attack who is also rehabbing from surgery. Valeri said he feels good about his fitness level and the injury isn’t giving him any problems.
“Just working hard now, so I’m happy to be feeling good,” Valeri said.
Dan Itel covers the Portland Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.