PORTLAND, Ore. – Diego Valeri has had the talent, track record and statistics to be a part of past MLS MVP conversations.
Entering the 2017 season, however, the Portland Timbers star thought those days were behind him. Not so.
Valeri was presented with the 2017 Landon Donovan MLS MVP award on Monday for a sparkling season that saw him record 21 goals and 11 assists to help the Timbers to the best regular season record in the Western Conference. The honor was made more impressive by the fact that the Argentine playmaker turned 31 this year, normally an age when most players begin to slow down.
The groundwork for his surprising success, he said, came from all the small details coming together, from the make-up and chemistry of the Timbers to a new diet regimen he started at the beginning of the year.
"I'm 31 years old and it's not easy," Valeri said at Monday's MVP award announcement. "MLS has a lot of great players and I never expected this.”
"I'm surprised about it. Sadly, I had a lot of injuries in my career, so probably my 31 is 35," he later added with a laugh. "So I'm surprised, but happy surprised."
Valeri became only the second MLS player to tally 20 goals and 10 assists in a single season in 2017. He set a new record for the most consecutive games with a goal at nine and finished third in the Golden Boot race behind strikers Nemanja Nikolic and David Villa.
That nine-game goal streak and excellent run of form came as striker Fanendo Adi sat with a lingering hamstring injury that kept him out for most of the second half of the season. Valeri said Adi’s absence was a factor in him stepping up.
"Normally with Adi on the field, we have 15 goals, right?" Valeri said. "You can be more focused on different things on the field in my role, most likely assisting or creating more."
"Every individual award in our game is a collective achievement – that's why this is for every one of my teammates," he said.
But Valeri also made an individual effort to improve his performances this season. Conscious that getting older would continue to present a challenge, he looked for ways to enhance his performance as he entered his 30s. A big part of that was a new diet regimen he was introduced to through Blanco, who joined the Timbers from San Lorenzo in February.
"Since Blanco arrived here, he used to work with a nutritionist and osteopath in Spain and they are helping us," Valeri said. "They are helping us to know what kind of food is helpful for us and what kind of food is not."
For Valeri, that has meant cutting back on gluten and diary in a more restrictive diet while also focusing more on rest and recovery. Like Monday's award ceremony – which included Valeri's wife, Florencia, and their daughter, Connie – Valeri's lifestyle change was a family affair.
"I feel very different and a big part of it is my wife," Valeri said of his diet changes. "She cooks really well and takes the time to do it because I am not a cook, so that's been important."
Whatever it has been, it worked. Valeri overwhelmingly won the MVP award from all voting blocs: players, club representatives and journalists. As Landon Donovan himself put it in a video message shown Monday to Valeri: "You, in my opinion, were the MVP throughout the year. It was inspiring to watch."