National Writer: Charles Boehm

Will MLS Cup 2021 be Portland Timbers icon Diego Valeri’s swan song?

Diego Valeri

PORTLAND – Diego Valeri doesn’t want to make headlines this week.

He didn’t come right out and say as much while addressing reporters after the Portland Timbers’ Thursday morning training session, but the 35-year-old maestro made clear that completing optimal preparations for winning Saturday’s MLS Cup 2021 final at Providence Park vs. New York City FC is all that matters right now for him and the rest of his squad (3 pm ET | ABC, UniMás in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada).

“It’s all we want. It’s all we want,” Valeri said of the alluring prospect of hoisting a trophy on home turf. “We want to have our supporters, our city celebrating things like this. And obviously at this point, we didn't have the chance to do it in our house [yet]. So it's going to be very special. But we know that we have to perform a big game in order to celebrate and have them happy.

“It's been a tough time for everybody,” he later said when asked about the value of this rare opportunity amid the turbulence of the wider events of the past two years. “And when that kind of thing happens, soccer is a good way to bring some joy. So in those terms, as a Portlander, I'm so happy that we can bring that chance, at least for a couple of hours.”

As laudable as that focus may be, as selfless as he's proven to be since his Rose City arrival eight years ago, he’s too much of a Timbers legend, simply too deeply woven into the fabric of the club – and its place in both Portland and MLS – to fly under the radar as the city hosts its first title match since the 1977 Soccer Bowl, back in the NASL era.

Earlier this month Argentine journalist Cesar Luis Merlo reported that Valeri will depart the club at season’s end to finish out his career elsewhere. And while nothing is official – and no one in Timbers green would confirm or deny it on Thursday – a lingering sense of closure, and the melancholy that accompanies it, hung in the air.

“The emotions is that – in soccer, the most important is the coming game. And that's my feeling,” he said of his emotions at this juncture. “Obviously, at this point of my career, I enjoy it a little bit more because you never know when these type of chances are going to come again.

“So that's my feeling, but I'm very focused on the game. I really enjoy this beautiful game and these kind of stages are the most enjoyable. So you really like to be there, inside. And that's my feeling. I'm going to rest well, prepare and be 100% if I have to jump into the game.”

As his phrasing conveys, Valeri is no longer an everyday starter for PTFC. He’s started just 10 matches this season and has logged only 11 minutes in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Once the hub of the team, the playmaker holding the keys to the attack, he’s become more of a role player, albeit a deeply revered one – by his colleagues and the wider Portland community that he and his family have made their home.

“You’re talking about a player that not only has transformed Portland, also has been an important signing for Major League Soccer. He's bringing a true example of what a [Designated Player] means, and he's made this league and this team be a better league and a better team,” said Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese.

“Diego’s a great professional, Diego’s been a great player. Also inside the locker room, he's been very good to everyone. And the reality is that he's going to continue to compete and he's very excited,” he added.

“I think the most important is to enjoy Diego Valeri at the moment. Everything that we see about Diego, the game that he's going to play, the final that he's going to participate [in], we have to enjoy it. And then I think we'll see what happens after. I think right now it is something that we probably will know more right after this game. But right now he's a very important component of this team and he's been a true legend for this club.”

Winger Yimmi Chara echoed that.

“I believe this is going to be a great experience for him if we can get the title. He's done a lot of great things for the club, he's helped the club grow, and I think he deserves that,” said the Colombian international. “So we really hope that we could accomplish this title win, because it would be something very meaningful for him.”

Valeri doesn’t want his situation to distract or detract from the immediate goals of the collective. The bilingual veteran did, however, let slip a bit when asked about his future in Spanish by journalist John Rojas.

“To continue playing, I have no doubt, I feel very good,” said Valeri, who notably made sure to scale the capo stand in Providence Park’s north end to salute the Timbers Army after their Decision Day win over Austin FC last month, mindful that it could have been the final home game of the year. “Here? I don't know [if it will be] here. I think it will be a bit difficult. But beyond that, I feel good, I want to continue and enjoy this profession that is a privilege.”

He said he hadn’t considered whether an MLS Cup win would be a perfect Portland swan song, but he’ll do his part to make that storybook ending a reality.

“It is. It is the perfect way, actually. Even I didn't think about it. So it's a very good surprise,” he said. “I'm going to enjoy it. I'm going to fight for another trophy.”