The Road Back for Diego Valeri

Heading into the 2013 season, the Portland Timbers made a head coach change from John Spencer to Caleb Porter. Porter knew the team needed a number 10, a central attacking midfielder who could be both creative and score goals.

On Jan. 10, 2013, Diego Valeri of Argentina’s Club Atlético Lanús joined the Timbers on loan as a designated player with a team option to purchase the contract outright. During the transfer window, Portland was trying to acquire United States International midfielder Mix Diskerud, who, at the time, was playing for Norwegian side Rosenborg BK. After Diskerud decided to go back to Norway for another season instead of coming to Major League Soccer, the Timbers made a play for Valeri, with him arriving on loan.

On Aug. 6, 2013, the club signed him to a multiyear contract. That year Valeri had 10 goals, 13 assists, was named MLS Newcomer of the Year, and was also named to the MLS Best XI alongside his teammates: goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and midfielder
Will Johnson.

The Timbers finished number one in the Western Conference regular season standings and made the playoffs for the first time since their inception in MLS. They would beat the Seattle Sounders in the conference semi-finals on aggregate 5-3 with wins on the road and at home. In the Western Conference finals they would go down to Real Salt Lake 2–5 on aggregate.

In 2014, the Portland Timbers struggled to start the season. The first 10 games of the season showed Portland at (1-3-6, 9 points). They ultimately missed out on the fifth and last playoff spot to their Cascadia Cup rivals, the Vancouver Whitecaps. The other Cascadia Cup rivals, the Seattle Sounders, were the recipients of the Supporters’ Shield given to the team with the best regular season record in MLS and the Western Conference. That left Portland as the only team in the Cascadia Cup threesome that did not qualify for the playoffs.

Valeri continued his MVP pace with 11 goals and 14 assists. He was named to the 2014 MLS Best XI for the second consecutive year and was the only player from a non-playoff team to be selected.

Valeri was also named a MLS All-Star for the game against powerhouse German side Bayern Munich. That game served as a home match for all three Timbers named to the All-Star game: Diego Valeri, Liam Ridgewell and Will Johnson. Valeri, true to his playmaking form, found Landon Donovan with a beautiful ball in the 70th minute to break the 1–1 tie for the game winner. The MLS All-Stars held on to defeat the powerhouse that is Bayern Munich 2–1 on Valeri’s game-winning assist.

On the Oct. 25, 2014, the final day of the season, the Timbers needed to win by drawing or beating the Whitecaps. In the final game on the road against FC Dallas, the Timbers would have to win without Valeri. In the 26th minute, Valeri collided with FC Dallas player Andres Escobar. Valeri was taken out of the game, with reports confirmed after the game that he tore his ACL in his left knee. He underwent successful surgery to repair that damage but would miss at least five months of action for recovery. This would be the second consecutive season the Argentine would have to recover from an offseason surgery after taking five weeks to recover from a sports hernia in December 2013.

Since tearing his ACL in the final game of the regular season, Valeri has worked day and night during his rehab to get back to the Timbers. This team was built around his ability to create for himself and his teammates. He has had double-digit goals and assists in both seasons in MLS. Valeri said he hoped to be back by May.

On the Timbers’ official website, they were doing a web series about how Valeri was attacking his rehab. “Diego Valeri: Blood, Sweat, & Roses” currently has two parts you can check out on the team’s official web page.

Return of the king

On May 2, 2015, the attendance of 21,144 fans went wild in the 52nd minute of the game when Valeri was announced to be subbing in for midfielder Ishmael Yartey. The standing ovation and the number of supportive signs, cheers and waving of the scarves for “The Maestro” could be seen throughout the stadium. These fans have waited six months to see the #8 jersey back on the field. The announcers for the Whitecaps on TSN used the term “a hero’s welcome” when Valeri was set to enter the pitch. The match ended in a 0-0 scoreless draw, but the team and their fans could feel that the tide of the season was changing.

On May 9, 2015, on the road against the Montreal Impact, Porter would put Valeri back in the starting lineup alongside his usual running mates on the wings, Darlington Nagbe and Rodney Wallace. Fanendo Adi would start as the lone target forward. On the backline, the Timbers had Powell, Borchers, Ridgewell and Villafaña in front of goalkeeper Kwarasey. Chara and Jewsbury would round out the starting 11 for Portland.

In the 64th minute, Valeri delivered a corner kick which was cleared to Chara who found Ridgewell who managed to head a cross into Adi. The target forward nearly scored as it hit the top of the post before popping out into the head of Borchers, who put it away to break the scoring drought. In the 72nd minute, Valeri officially announced his return with a superbly taken goal. Kwarasey hit a goal kick deep onto the head of a Montreal defender, who knocked it back straight to Valeri, who found Wallace. Before almost losing the ball, Wallace managed to tap the ball out to a wide open Valeri, who fired it to the side netting of the far post. Valeri opened his scoring account and gave the Timbers a 2-0 lead, which they would need, as the game ended 2-1.

The win moved the Timbers out of last place in the Western Conference standings into eighth (3-4-3, 14 points) with a ton of games to make up the deficit. The team is still without their captain and workhorse in Will Johnson, through his comeback is possible in the next few weeks. Portland has Valeri back in the starting lineup, and with Johnson back in the fold soon, look out for the Timbers climbing up the standings.

The rehab and recovery were officially complete for the Argentinian playmaker. The Timbers needed his return to help them out of a goal scoring drought. The timing could not have been any better with a win in Valeri’s first start in over six months.

Catch Valeri and the Timbers go for their second consecutive win on the road against the Houston Dynamo on May 16 at 5:30 p.m. on KPTV.