BEAVERTON, Ore. – Diego Valeri continues to be the biggest symbol of the Portland Timbers’ rise to relevance under head coach Caleb Porter as the then first-year head coach’s signature acquisition ahead of the 2013 season.
He won MLS Newcomer of the Year that season, was an MVP candidate and turned in an equally solid year in 2014. But last year, he wasn’t himself. After suffering an ACL injury in the final game of 2014, Valeri spent the better part of the season rehabbing and really wasn’t himself until late in the year. When he finally came around, he became a big reason for the Timbers’ MLS Cup championship run. Oh, and then there was that opening goal 27 seconds into the title game.
Now, after a good start to the 2016 season, Valeri has had a full offseason and preseason at full health and is expecting big things of himself in Portland’s title defense season. That’s on the field. What about the stuff you didn’t know about the Timbers’ Argentine playmaking dynamo? MLSsoccer.com sat down with him at the team’s training facility to learn a little more.
Rested and ready
Valeri beamed all preseason about the fact that he’s hitting the ground running after missing the first eight games of 2015, a span in which the Timbers managed just nine points.
“It means a lot to be with the team from the first day of preseason,” he said. “So yeah, I’m trying to be ready for the team, ready to be behind the team. It’s a long season, but obviously I’m excited.”
The hard part
Valeri returned from his knee injury on May 2 last year against Vancouver and made his first start a week later, not surprisingly scoring the game-winning goal in a 2-1 road win over the Montreal Impact. Before Valeri could get there though, a lot of rehab work had to be done.
“The most frustrating part is you’re training all week and you know you won’t play on Sunday,” Valeri said of the worst part of the rehab process. “Some days you have pain, you have fatigue, you feel bad because you are not healthy, you can’t touch the ball, you can’t play. That’s the worse part of the rehab. But the good part of the rehab is if you work hard you know you’ll be on the field again.”
Valeri said the most physically painful part was the first two weeks after the surgery.
“That’s bad, that’s the worst,” he said. “The scar tissue and that side of things is really, really awful.”
But first, we celebrate
It was obviously an offseason of celebration for the MLS Cup champion Timbers, so how did Valeri mark the historic achievement? A handful of his immediate family from Argentina met Valeri, his wife and daughter in Miami for nearly three weeks of good old fashioned Christmas vacation.
“It was a good time and we could share feelings about that,” he said of the championship. “… It was good weather, went to the beaches, it was a good time.”
You’d think Valeri’s favorite moment would be his record-setting tally in MLS Cup, shocking Columbus Crew SC goalkeeper Steve Clark into a devastating mistake with a sliding goal just 27 seconds into the game. But he said the moment that sticks with him the most from Portland’s playoff run was when fellow countryman Lucas Melano dribbled in the deciding goal in the second leg of the Western Conference Championship at FC Dallas, the regular-season champs in the West.
“That one when Lucas scored that goal because it was a hard game,” Valeri said. “I remember it was a big step to win the MLS Cup trophy. And then obviously when the whistle blows in the last second of the game against Columbus, that moment it was special, really special.”
A new partner in the middle
The midfield partnership of Valeri and Darlington Nagbe could very well be one of the most dangerous in MLS. Nagbe’s move from the right wing to the middle late last year was a revelation for the Timbers, and it’s seemingly now a partnership that will last into the foreseeable future. What does Valeri think of it?
“It’s always nice playing with Darlington. I think he did really well the last time of the season last year,” Valeri said. “He’s a special player, and so I always want to be close to him. It’s a team, you can’t just focus on one player, but he’s a special player. He’s a really, really high level player, so it’s really fun to play with him.”
Valeri said his relationship with Nagbe may not extend off the field, but they have an intense connection when it comes to the beautiful game.
“Of course, in the locker room we share conversations,” Valeri said. “And he’s a really, really warm guy, and he’s so special, and yeah we are friends, of course.”
Not quite a mate master
The mate tea culture is strong among the Timbers’ Argentine players, especially true last season when at one point there were four players from the South American country on the roster. Now it’s just Valeri and Melano. But Valeri says his teammate has always been the most skilled in the art of making mate, the traditional Argentine beverage.
“He does good mates,” Valeri said. “He knows how to use the sugar, how to use it right, how to spend more time drinking it. Using the parts of the matte, it’s crazy. I don’t drink it like that. I just put the water over it and drink it.”
Rock star on the field – and off
They call him the maestro of Providence Park, but Valeri’s talent isn’t only with a soccer ball at his feet. He took up the guitar as a 19-year-old, and now 10 years later still plays at least one day a week.
“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s a hobby. For me, it’s good. I have time to spend on that, and it’s good.”
He strums an acoustic, and tabs Skay Beilinson, of one of the most popular rock bands in Argentina, Patricio Rey y sus Redonditos de Ricota, and Walter Giardino of heavy metal band Rata Blanca as his inspirations.
Man about town
Valeri lives in the Pearl district in downtown Portland, a new and evolving enclave of high-rise condos along the Willamette River. He said the favorite activities of he and his family – wife Florencia and daughter Constanza, a big inspiration for Valeri’s move to the States in the hopes of providing them a better, more stable life (more on that later) – are nothing fancy, nothing Portlandia.
“We like to hang around the city,” he said. “We like the river, too. We rent a boat and go to the river. We love that. We love parts around Portland. We love this place.”
Raising a “Portlandia girl”
Valeri’s daughter is obviously a huge part of his life, one he’s proud has been entrenched in the Rose City. Now 7 years old, Valeri notes his daughter has spent more time here than in any other city.
“She’s great, she’s in school, she’s playing soccer, she’s having fun here,” he said. “She’s a Portlandia girl.”
Not always Portland bliss
Valeri’s motivation for a move to MLS is well known, but it’s worth touching on again now that he’s become so entrenched in his adopted home city of Portland. In 2012, Valeri was with his wife and daughter in Argentina when they were robbed as they pulled up to a friend’s house for a party. That proved to be the impetus for Valeri seeking out a move to the US and a new life.