Plenty has changed around the Portland Timbers since their inaugural MLS season nearly 11 years ago.
The club has cycled through four head coaches, more than 100 first-team players and somewhere north of a dozen kits over that time. Their NWSL siblings Thorns FC arrived in 2013; the training facility they share has been built, expanded and renovated. Providence Park welcomed 18,627 fans on opening night in 2011, a rainy 4-2 win over Chicago Fire FC; today it holds 25,218 thanks to a glittering $85 million expansion of its east side from 2017-19.
One particular fixture endures at the Rose City club across that decade-plus, however, not merely hanging on but prospering, seemingly growing into an institution on par with chainsaws, log slices, the Timbers Army and their drums and song sheet: holding midfielder Diego Chara.
The first Designated Player in Portland history, Chara has just about seen and done it all, leading the way to the club’s first-ever league title in 2015, an MLS Cup return trip three years later and an MLS is Back Tournament trophy in 2020. And he remains pivotal to their prospects of another as they host upstarts Real Salt Lake for Saturday’s Western Conference Final (6:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes), where a win would earn the Timbers a championship bout on home turf for the first time.
“It has been a tricky season for us, but now we have the opportunity to be conference champion,” the Colombian told MLSsoccer.com this week. “We enjoy everything when we play in front of our fans; it’s an amazing feeling. To have this opportunity, man, it’s unbelievable.”
Now 35, Chara continues to produce quietly vital performances for the Oregon-based side, still shielding the backline superbly, regulating the tempo and starting – occasionally even finishing – attacks amid an exceedingly graceful aging process that he boils down to four words: run less, think more.
“That’s experience,” he said. “When you have the privilege to play for many years as a professional soccer player, you start learning how to be more effective from your position, and I think I learned during these 10 years in the league. That's why I always have the energy to go and counterattack in the final part of the games. Because you try to be very smart, passing the ball, run less, think more.”
While he shined in Caleb Porter’s system, it’s probably not a coincidence that Chara has seemingly sipped from the fountain of youth since the arrival of Giovanni Savarese ahead of the 2018 campaign. The former New York Cosmos boss has made PTFC a consistently tough out, particularly in knockout competitions, with a savvy counterattacking style tailored for cerebral veterans like him.
“The core of the team is over 30; that’s experience. And from that experience we want to take our young players and they'll learn how to win these types of games,” said Chara, pointing to Portland’s heady upset of the top-seeded Colorado Rapids in the Western Conference Semifinal on Thanksgiving Day.
“Because the most important in these games is to be mentally strong, be patient and try to be effective in the right time, and we did that against Colorado. They created chances to score [but] for the 90 minutes we were patient, trying to find a way to score, and in the 89th minute we did it, and then the game was over. And I think that game was proof in showing how good we are doing our style of play.
“In the playoffs, we found that way to be patient, try to keep the ball, but at the same time be ready to get our transitions. I think we are really, really good doing that.”
Chara has made more than 300 appearances and counting for PTFC, earning MLS All-Star and Best XI honors along the way and gaining his United States citizenship in 2019. He and his wife Sindy have made Portland not just a professional destination, but home – raising four children, Mariajose and Allison, ages 12 and 10, and their twin younger brothers Ángel and Diego, who just marked their third birthday.
So is the next generation of Charas growing up as Colombians, or estadounidense?
“It’s 50/50,” said Diego with a smile. “They enjoy going back to Colombia – extended family, a lot of cousins, uncles, aunts. But at the same time, they live their entire life here.”
Diego and Sindy eventually even sold his younger brother, Yimmi Chara, on the region and club ahead of his arrival via transfer from Atletico Mineiro in January 2020, a reunion Diego calls “a dream come true” for the entire family in addition to its on-field value for the Timbers.
“Family” is a word Chara returns to often. Just as his quality on the pitch has made it possible for him to gather and settle in the Rose City, the welcome they’ve received made them feel part of the wider Timbers tribe. His metronome-steady performances in the center of the park could surely have earned him a taste of prominent leagues around the world, much like Yimmi, who played in Mexico and Brazil before arriving in MLS. But Diego never really felt compelled to look further afield.
“The beginning was a little tricky because I think the two, three first months living in Portland, different culture, different language, it was difficult for us,” he recalled. “But I think when we started to know about the community, the people, and how good are the people here in Oregon, that was one of the things we tried to stay to learn [about]. The community was really important to make that decision to stay in Portland.”
“I always tried to reach my best performance and I found a way to do it here in Portland," he added. "Obviously I always had opportunities to go to a different league, but I think the balance – my family feels at home, and for me that's really important.”
Even for neutrals, it’s hard to imagine PTFC without Chara. Understandably, the player himself prefers to focus on the here and now, to enjoy what he acknowledges are “my last few years in professional soccer.” But with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Chris Wondolowski and others around the world defying the conventional perception of what’s possible for top players in their late 30s, who’s to say what his future holds?
“We're very fortunate to have Diego Chara in this league, in this club,” said Savarese on Thursday. “It’s not only the commitment that he has on the field to execute the game at a high level, it is his ethics, and the way he conducts himself as a leader, as a person, as a human being that makes him be even a stronger person and a stronger player. We're fortunate in Portland to have him here.
“But he's not only an excellent player for the Portland Timbers, I think he's a huge example for MLS. And he's one that age has made him become even a better player, in what he does with the ball, the way he defends. So we hope and continue to support him in this never-aging phase. And he stays, still from the moment that he arrived until now, and hopefully in the future, a very important player and a leader for this team.”