MARIETTA, Ga. — When Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers kick off 2018 MLS Cup on Saturday night (8 pm ET | FOX, UniMás, TSN, TVAS), it won’t just be the top two teams battling for MLS’s grand prize, it’ll be MLS’s top two players over the last two seasons battling for bragging rights and legacies.
2017 MLS MVP Diego Valeri is, in a way, a pioneer for the new breed of soccer player coming to MLS from South America in the last handful of years. That’s not to say that he was one of the first — far from it. But Valeri represented a new quality of player coming from the region, the former captain of a Lanus side who had plenty of talent but no name recognition stateside.
It’s not difficult for current Portland Timbers manager Giovanni Savarese to recall his memory of the announcement of Valeri’s signing with Portland in 2013.
“I remember when he arrived to the league, some Argentinians on ESPN said 'Ooh! Valeri signed for MLS, it's about to get good,'” recalled the Venezuelan manager in Thursday’s press conference. “So right there from that first day, he's been a game-changer. You don't get the name of 'Maestro' [for nothing]. He's been instrumental for MLS.”
Valeri himself acknowledged that he’s happy to see the South American and Argentine influence on Saturday’s cup final, with the Portland roster featuring nine South Americans and four Argentines, while Atlanta have eight South Americans, including five from Argentina.
“It makes me so happy to see Argentinians play in these types of games — finals,” Valeri said. “Competing and bringing that identity, that level of competition that the Argentinian league and players have, it makes me feel so happy because MLS is creating a new identity.”
While both teams feature almost an equal number of South Americans, the South American style seems to be fully embodied by Atlanta, under manager "Tata" Martino. And if there’s any player that fits the competitive archetype described by Valeri, it’s this year’s Landon Donovan MLS MVP, Josef Martinez. Savarese said Martinez is setting a legacy of his own — despite it being only his second year in MLS — by changing the way an entire nation consumes the sport.
“Being the first Venezuelan to play in this league, I feel very proud of what Josef has accomplished,” said Savarese. “He's done a great job to break records and be the first Venezuelan to win MVP. I'm very proud where we've gotten and the credibility soccer has in Venezuela as well.”
Valeri and Martinez will fight for their teammates and supporters in Saturday’s final, but there’s personal glory also at stake. With the last two reigning MVPs going head-to-head, there’s a battle of pride. And for Valeri, there’s a chance to cement his legacy on the Mount Rushmore of MLS greats.
“He represents South America, Argentina, Portland Timbers and MLS at the highest level you can think,” said Savarese. “I'm lucky that we have him. It's fortunate for us and the club. He never stops showing his quality game by game.”