Today is Diego Valeri’s birthday. He is 31 years old, and he is living the life he was meant to live.
Today, Valeri will wake up in the city that’s adopted him as one of its own. He’ll eat breakfast with his wife, Florencia, sipping mate and chatting until it’s time to take their 8-year-old daughter Connie to school. From there, he’ll head to the Timbers training facility to continue recovering from the hip strain that kept him in Portland this weekend while his teammates gutted out a road draw in Dallas.
Lunch, if Valeri has his druthers, will be at Piazza Italia – his and Florencia’s favorite restaurant and a nod to his Italian heritage – followed by a quiet afternoon, perhaps reading or strumming his guitar, before picking up Connie and heading to the park to play soccer or taking a stroll around the city. They’ll have dinner together, perhaps a meal of Argentine asado with a few friends and teammates, then Valeri will tuck into bed and do it all over again.
“Everything you do has to be with love and respect,” Valeri often tells Connie. “Then you can do whatever you want.”
What Valeri wants, and his family want, can be summed up in one word: “quietness.”
In their last life, amidst the urban hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires, Diego, Florencia and Connie didn’t have the tranquility or the stability they craved. The simplicity they dreamed of wasn’t possible, embedded in the intense culture of Argentinian soccer, in the country they loved, but found hard to manage, as a family.
They’ve found that quietness in Portland, and they don’t plan on leaving anytime soon, if ever.
“I know his hope is that he retires with this club,” says Timbers GM/President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson, who last August inked Valeri to an extension that will take him through 2019. “Our hope is the same.”
Understanding the man
I’ve long been fascinated by Valeri, a bona fide star who doesn’t act like one, and an archetype for the sort of transformative signing that can change the fortunes of an MLS club in one flourish. Over the last month, I spent hours on the phone trying to better understand the man, what he means to the club and why Valeri and Portland seem to be a match made in soccer heaven.
Valeri himself spent nearly an hour patiently outlining his philosophy on life and describing what motivates him, not as a soccer player but as a man, just one question about soccer breaking up arguably the most interesting conversation I’ve ever had with an athlete. Valeri was exactly what I was told he’d be: gracious, thoughtful, curious, compassionate – and, above all else, humble.
He is also destined to be, if he isn’t already, the greatest Timbers player of all time, the latest in a long line of club legends who’ve come to Portland for soccer reasons and stuck around because the lifestyle, the people, the club and the city prove too difficult to leave behind. Think Clive Charles, John Bain, Jack Jewsbury and many, many others.
Valeri’s 42 goals are tied for third in Timbers history behind current teammate Fanendo Adi and NASL star Bain, whose club assist record (55) could fall this year if the Argentine manages to dish out 10 in the Timbers' remaining 25 games. That number is well within reach, should he remain healthy as Portland chases a return to the playoffs and perhaps even a second MLS Cup, following their 2015 victory.
While Valeri’s exploits on the field made the Timbers Army and the rest of Portland fall in love with their understated star – championship parades and MVP-caliber seasons tend to do that – it’s his dedication to being an active, engaged member of the community that has truly cemented Valeri in Timbers lore after just four years in the Pacific Northwest.
He and Connie famously showed up to paint tifo with the Timbers Army, and the family are mainstays at Portland Thorns games. Off the field, Valeri pops up around town, from daily interactions out and about with his family to playing with and cheering for friends in adult-league futsal matches. On Twitter, where athletes are often more #sponsored than #authentic, he sends messages espousing tolerance and, above all, love.
Portland isn’t just a career pit stop, it’s Valeri’s home. The people around him aren’t just potential fans; they’re peers, friends and acquaintances. Diego and Florencia’s investment in the community reflects that approach, one that’s no guarantee in a transient profession.
“Florencia loves Portland,” Valeri says, “maybe more than me.”
There are other stories, too, anecdotes via the grapevine: Hundreds of dollars' worth of cleats showing up at a youth equipment drive days after Valeri was spotted at the adidas employee store making a large purchase; a sizable donation made to help deck out a play room for foster kids just days before the Valeri family showed up to put in their own sweat equity. Both anonymous, and not the first of their kind.
“Who told you that?” Valeri asked before a long pause and a chuckle. “I’m just kidding.
“Because of our profession, our names sometimes get too much attention,” he continues. “I know that will pass with time.”
Only he’s not joking, not really. Valeri doesn’t want credit. He and his wife just want to do what’s right according to their moral compass and strong Catholic faith. The Valeris want to help people – namely children and those less fortunate – and they want to provide an example for Connie.
For the Valeris, love and respect come first, and everything else falls in place once those boxes have been checked.
“Everything is connected,” Valeri says. “It’s the way we want to live as a family, and the way we think people should be educated for the future. Obviously, our daughter, too.”
He says those connections and his affection for the city, the lifestyle and the people – in other words, the quietness he feels in his day-to-day life – are, in many ways, the driving forces for the most productive stretch of his career.
How it happens
Valeri might never have ended up in Portland if not for the Timbers' failed flirtation with Mix Diskerud ahead of the 2013 season. Once Diskerud’s price went above their valuation, Wilkinson and head coach Caleb Porter looked elsewhere, more specifically to Argentina and Lanus, where Valeri was looking for a new challenge and new environment.
Owner Merritt Paulson says he knew Valeri was different when his agent mentioned he’d insisted on paying when the two met for a dinner meeting. Porter knew he could be a transformative player when he dug in to watch tape over the holidays. Wilkinson was reminded of the quality of person they’d signed years before when Valeri knocked on his door last summer to clear the air during negotiations over his contract extension.
“[His agent] calls him 'St. Valeri'. He jokes, ‘I try not to spend time too much time around him because I start to feel bad about myself,’” Wilkinson says. “We joke around, too: ‘Is he boring?’ He’s far from boring. He’s – and it sounds much better in Spanish – St. Valeri."
“He’s very humble," Porter adds. "You’re trying to create a team and a culture, and then you sign DPs and it can be very delicate. Players are big – they’ve got power. He’s got this genuine personality and doesn’t act bigger than anybody else, when he probably could. Never once has he come to me and said, ‘Hey, I want something more than another guy.’ I don’t have to manage him or coddle him. From my standpoint, he’s an example professional.”
So much so that Valeri's name gets bandied about when other MLS clubs are searching for their own No. 10.
“What we hear from other agents is, ‘This club wants a Diego Valeri. That club wants a Diego Valeri,’" Wilkinson says. "It’s not that easy to find a Diego Valeri. When you get the personality match with the ability and the desire to live in your city, it’s like winning the lottery.”
Only, in this case, the Timbers are the ones signing the checks, including a hefty seven-figure transfer fee when Valeri signed back in 2013 and a contract that will, according to the MLS Player's Union, pay one of MLS's most productive attacking players more than $2.2 million each year through 2019.
You'll find nobody within the organization who thinks that money is anything but well spent.
“He’s become, in some ways, the gold standard,” Paulson says.
And, barring something unforeseen, Valeri will continue to be that for the Timbers, now and possibly for the rest of his career. He’ll be 33 when this current contract ends, and he has no plans to slow down or retire anytime soon.
Valeri does, however, think about the future, about what he’ll do when the time comes that he can no longer make a living playing the game he loves.
He’s not exactly sure what will come next, but he’s certain about two things: He has a lot to learn, and he knows he wants to serve the club, city and people who’ve made Portland a home he and his family don’t ever plan on leaving.
“It’s early, but we always think about it. It is 100-percent that we will live in Portland,” Valeri says. “It would have to be something really big to make us move. Portland is the right place for us. Our profession is very dynamic and it has lots of changes, but as a family, we have decided that Portland is our place.”