Since joining the Portland Timbers ahead of the club’s 2013 season, Diego Valeri has grown accustomed to what the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs entail.
The highlights over his eight years, of course, are when Portland lifted MLS Cup in 2015 and advanced to the same stage in 2018, with the Argentine steering the club alongside defensive midfielder Diego Chara, another mainstay from South America.
So when the weather gets colder and single-elimination territory arrives, Valeri gets excited at the prospect of what lies ahead.
"For me, it's the best, it's the best part of the season. It's the most exciting,” Valeri said. “You are a couple steps away from another final, from another trophy and that's very exciting for every single one of us. We played the whole season just to be in these games, so it motivates you to keep training in the last push and then if you have some luck and you perform, you can have another trophy for this club again."
The Timbers have already won silverware in 2020, being the last team standing at the MLS is Back Tournament. Now, they’re the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference and will host a Round One tilt against No. 6 FC Dallas on Sunday (10 pm ET | TV & streaming info).
Portland, however, have a slightly different complexion in the final third than during their run at the Orlando-based bubble. Designated Players Sebastian Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda suffered season-ending ACL injuries, so some solutions will need to emerge. Perhaps Valeri, who’s managed eight goals and seven assists in 22 games this year, can discover some magic with the stakes raised.
"It's more about the mental state,” Valeri said. “It's about knowing that it's an elimination game, so that creates a different environment, a different atmosphere inside the field. Obviously the intensity and the rhythm of the game, it's probably different. But it's all based on how the game goes.
“So we have to start the game, put our foot on it and then try to manage the game. So there's a difference, but for me it's more about how you prepare and play the game knowing that it's an elimination game."
Another factor will likely be Yimmi Chara, the club's third Designated Player who joined this past offseason from Brazilian club Atletico Mineiro via transfer. The younger brother of Diego, Yimmi needed some initial adjusting to MLS but finished the regular season with four goals and eight assists in 21 matches.
Chara will soon encounter his first MLS playoffs test, though experienced similar formats at prior club stops, including at Liga MX side CF Monterrey.
“Yes, and not only in Mexico, in the other countries that I have played I have also had the opportunity to play in playoffs,” Chara said. “And yes it is going to help me. We know that the teams get prepared differently for these kinds of games and we as players need to be prepared for that. We cannot let the other team take advantage and we need to take any opportunity we have.”
One other wrinkle is that Portland and FC Dallas are yet to play this year; they didn’t meet at MLS is Back, and the COVID-induced schedule adjustments placed them in different pools. That'll change Sunday at Providence Park, and Valeri expects they’ll confidently confront the challenges posed by Luchi Gonzalez’s team.
“We got used to playing the same teams during this last period of the season, so it's going to be weird,” Valeri said. “But we have played a lot against Dallas in the past and even if they have some changes on their roster and in the system, as professionals we have to prepare based on what we watch on film of their games, and it's all about that. And then it's just how you approach the game and how you play the 90 minutes."