As Diego Valeri recalls, "It was always my dream to become a professional soccer player."
That's not surprising, given that Valeri was born in a place where many dream that same dream: The suburbs of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, arguably unparalleled in its love for soccer and in its creation of talented soccer players.
But Valeri's journey, and the fulfillment of that dream, has been unique, taking him from his home country to Portugal and Spain's top professional leagues and back again, and then to the Pacific Northwest, where he blazed a trail by becoming the first Argentinian player to join the MLS edition of the Portland Timbers in 2013.
In doing so, he's become one of most legendary players to emerge from what is now Portland's eight notable years in MLS, instrumental in delivering the Timbers an MLS championship in 2015 after overcoming injury, and recording an MVP season two seasons later at age 31.
Diego Valeri's MLS Flight Path
Valeri's journey began at Club Atletico Lanus, his hometown club, where he started as a youth player before debuting for the senior team in 2003 as a 17-year-old.
"In Argentina, people are very passionate about it," Valeri says about how his country regards soccer. "They're very competitive.There's a lot of emotion behind every game, whatever it is."
Over the course of a decade with Lanus in Argentina's top-tier league, Valeri scored 39 goals in 220 appearances, helping the Granate win its first title in 2007. He served as captain late in his tenure with the team, helping it to compete with the likes of Boca Juniors, River Plate, and Newell's Old Boys year after year.
In the midst of that decade, though, Valeri got the chance to experience European soccer while maintaining his connections to his hometown team.
The incredible opportunity to go overseas came in 2009, in the form of a year-long loan at FC Porto, one of the top clubs in Primeira Liga, Portugal's top-flight league.
"It was a great move for me," Valeri noted. "I'd already been playing five years professionally, I had achieved some individual and collective goals at Lanus. It was a good moment for me to move to Europe. It was a good move, at a big team right in Portugal. They were playing in Champions League, they were champions in Portugal when I arrived, and they were trying to have a strong team to compete in Champions League every year. So, for me, it was a great experience, to be in Europe. When I got there, I found it to be a huge club, very well prepared, the quality of older players ... it was amazing."
Although Valeri was coming into a team with an established roster, he notes that he got a good amount of playing time in all competitions, including matches at Europe's highest level. The team made it into the Round of 16 in the Champions League, won the Supertaça Cândido de Oliveira (a start-of-the-season match between the previous season's league champion and Taça de Portugal winner), and finished third in the league, good enough for Europa League qualification.
"It's very aggressive," Valeri recalls of playing in Portugal. "It's very physical. It's good soccer there."
His European journey continued the next season in a slightly different setting, with Spanish club UD Almeria. Valeria joined the team on a six-month loan, noting, "I wanted to play in Spain, as it has one of the best leagues in the world. It was different from Porto, it was a smaller club, but it was good to have that experience." He recalls, with some laughter, that the experience included a lopsided loss to a talented Barcelona team, noting, "You always learn something from the different places you play."
He was experiencing some homesickness, though, and got to return to Lanús in a captaining role for the Clausura half of the 2010-2011 season, and remained there until a life-changing move in January 2013 —a loan, initially, to Portland, which would become his new home.
"I didn't know a lot about MLS," Valeri recalls. He had a few friends playing in the league, and had caught some matches on TV, but Portland was an unfamiliar place and MLS was different from what he'd previously experienced. Still, he found that "Portland had a lot to offer the players, it was growing, and being part of it, I really liked it."
When the Timbers exercised its option on Valeri's loan that August, he was quite happy. "It was amazing," he notes. "My family wanted to stay. The club deserved more than it had at that time, and I really wanted to be part of the story of the club. I'm very happy about it, and I'm obviously grateful about that decision from the club."
Valeri's time as a Timber hasn't always been easy. In the final match of the 2014 season, Valeri went down with a serious knee injury, requiring surgery to repair his ACL, and as the 2015 season commenced, he was still on the road to recovery.
"It wasn't an easy season for us," he remembers of the 2015 campaign. "We had a lot of struggles. I was rehabbing my knee, I started playing in June but didn't really find good form until September."
His good form, as Timbers fans know well, came at the right time — building momentum for a playoff run that would see them emerge as champions.
"There's a lot of emotion," Valeri says of the MLS playoff system that sends its top six teams in each conference into an intense tournament in which just one team makes what is ultimately a successful run. "It creates a really meaningful tournament. It makes it very special, and I like it. I'm used to it now. It's good because whoever is better physically or tactically can come in and win it."
The Timbers had the additional challenge of playing as a 3-seed. Just to get to the conference semifinals, they had to outlast Sporting Kansas City in a match that went to an 11-round shootout – eventually pitting the goalkeepers against each other at the spot.
"That was unbelievable," Valeri remembers. "That was luck. Everyone needs luck at some point to win a championship. And we got it in that moment. It was huge, and it was clear that there was luck there, even though there were a lot of moments in there where we played well."
Portland then got past its Cascadia Cup rivals in Vancouver and top-seeded FC Dallas to the MLS Cup in Columbus. There, Valeri wrote himself into the MLS history books by scoring just 27 seconds into the match, the earliest in MLS Cup history. The Timbers would go on to triumph over Crew SC 2-1, Valeri would win the match's MVP honors, and the team would take its first MLS Cup back home.
In 2017, Valeri would win the league's MVP award with a stellar season. At one point during the season, he scored in nine straight matches, eventually notching 21 goals and 11 assists, and he also became a member of MLS's 50/50 club that August when he scored his 50th career goal to match 50 assists — doing so in just 139 appearances.
Despite registering an incredible season, Valeri remains humble and focused on the team, even in expressing gratitude for being bestowed MVP honors.
"We choose to fight for collective achievements and collective goals, not individual ones. It wasn't easy, especially being more than 30 years old. I didn't think about it during the season. It was a great honor, but the most important thing for me is to work and to be better for this club."
Even though Valeri's far from the Argentina he grew up in, he sees the Timbers' connection to Portland as akin to Lanus' connection with Buenos Aires, and he feels very lucky to continue living and playing soccer in the Rose City.
"I feel privileged to live here. This club has a lot of similarities with the club that I grew up with, the club where I started, because the community is very strong. Their relationship with the club, their fans, and their community is very strong, and that's something that I really like. My family obviously loves the city, which is a beautiful city, with very warm people. It all connects to have made us feel really good from the moment we arrived. It's very important for me and my family to think about the future. We are having a good time here and we are happy."
Valeri's no longer the only Argentine player in Portland — teammates Sebastian Blanco, Lucas Melano, and Tomas Conechny also hail from his home country, making him feel more connected to the club then when he was a new arrival five years ago.
But Valeri also feels connection because of the charity work he's engaged in with the rest of the Timbers.
"The club has a good system to be involved with the community," Valeri notes, lauding the Stand Together program that helps players with the Timbers and their sister Thorns organization (in the NWSL) connect with the community, under a mission to harness the power of sport to improve the lives of children and families through targeted programs, deep partnerships, and philanthropic giving.
Valeri also works with Catholic charities in Portland on his own, and notes that programs helping the homeless and a book bank project that distributes books for children in need are among the most important to him. "For my wife and I," he explains, "we really like to encourage people to donate books, for people who economically don't have the opportunity to have books."
Though nearly 7,000 miles separate Portland from Buenos Aires, he and his family feel at home in this city passionate about soccer. It might not be the exact life he dreamt when he first learned to love the game, but it's proven to be a fantastic dream that still has some episodes remaining.