At this point, anyone who follows the Portland Timbers is at least vaguely familiar with the club’s remarkable run of futility when playing without Diego Chara.
The Timbers are surely sick of hearing the stat, but it’s notable for both its longevity and degree of inefficacy: In their last 17 regular season and playoff games without the 31-year-old defensive midfielder, Portland are a winless 0-11-6 with a negative-21 goal differential.
Their last win without Chara? That came all the way back in July 2015. The two games they played without him to open this season? A 2-1 loss at the LA Galaxy and a 4-0 drubbing at the New York Red Bulls, naturally.
As for last weekend’s 1-1 draw at FC Dallas? You guessed it: Chara was back in the lineup, going the full 90 in his first game since suffering a broken left foot in in the playoffs last fall.
It’s been this way ever since Chara signed as the first Designated Player in Timbers history early in the team’s inaugural MLS campaign. Since he made his club debut in April 2011, Chara has missed 33 regular season and playoff matches, nearly a full season’s worth of games. Portland are 5-16-12 in those contests, a record that’d put them at or near the bottom of the league in just about every season in MLS history.
Correlation might not imply causation, but those numbers are a pretty incredible indicator of just how important Chara is to Portland, who will look for their first win of 2018 at Chicago on Saturday (6 pm ET | MLS LIVE). The Colombian is their on-field rock, an almost ever-present shield protecting the back four and a stable foundation that allows reigning MVP and fellow Timbers legend Diego Valeri to more freely work his magic in the final third.
“In this club, everyone knows how valuable he is,” said former Timbers midfielder Jack Jewsbury, Chara’s longtime midfield partner and now the director of business development in Portland’s front office. “When you look back, I think some of the stats I’ve seen even early this year when he’s not on the field, there’s definitely a difference in the squad. That shows his importance to the club and this team.”
Jack Jewsbury, right, was the longtime midfield partner of Diego Chara, left, before retiring following the 2016 season | USA Today Sports Images
What makes Chara so good? According to Jewsbury and former Timbers center back and current Portland broadcaster Nat Borchers, his excellent mobility is at the top of the list. Chara covers more ground than just about any other holding midfielder in MLS, using his agility and endurance to constantly harry opposing No. 10s.
“The main characteristic that defines Diego Chara for me is mobility. His mobility around the field, he just covers so much ground,” said Borchers, who, in addition to playing with Chara, teamed with longtime US national team defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman for years at Real Salt Lake. “But the thing that is most interesting to me is, while he’s very mobile, he’s also very disciplined. You can have a ton of mobility but get caught out a lot, but he’s able to maintain his positioning very well.”
Jewsbury and Borchers praised Chara’s ability to drop deep and help the Timbers transition from defense to attack. Both said his passing talent isn’t talked about enough and complimented his skill at starting counterattacks.
Of course, Chara’s game has a rough edge, too. Despite playing nearly 70 games fewer than anyone else in the top-10, he's third in MLS history in fouls committed. He’s never finished lower than eighth in the league in fouls in a single-season and has led MLS in the category in three of his seven years in the league. His willingness to get stuck in hasn’t made him many friends on opposing teams, but it has given Portland a dogged, tough presence in the middle. That has plenty of value, even if it’s not always pretty.
“He’s just got such a willingness to defend, which is crucial in that position,” Borchers said. “A lot of guys who sit in the No. 6 or No. 8 spot just aren’t as willing to do the dirty work as he is. I think he’s a special player at breaking plays up and reading the game.”
He doesn’t rack up goals or assists, but Chara’s mobility and ability to break up plays on his own plays a big role in the Timbers’ attack. His presence allows players like Valeri and Sebastian Blanco a bit more freedom to go forward, something Jewsbury made sure to cite as vitally important.
Add it all together, and you’ve got one of the more underrated defensive midfielders in the league. A player as consistent as he is tireless, and one who’s as valuable to his team and as underrated as anyone in MLS.
“With Diego, you know there’s going to be that constant guy behind you that’s breaking plays up and then feeding you and giving you opportunities to go forward,” said Jewsbury. “I think that’s what he has been since he arrived here in Portland. I think he’s been a model of consistency and I think that’s all you can ask for in a guy in that role.”
Added Borchers: “Certainly, I think he’s underrated. I would argue that he’s in the top three in defensive midfielders in the league.”