- Diego Valeri had 21 goals, 11 assists and an MLS-record nine-game scoring streak in helping the Timbers finish atop the Western Conference regular season standings, and he is universally adored in the community that has become his home.
There’s no name for the designation, which is invented (just now) and arbitrary. But consider it something like Major League Soccer’s version of the EGOT.
There’s the temporal stuff, both collective and personal. Great players typically seek team titles, along with the recognition of their individual talent and contribution. And then there’s the transcendent part, which is a lot more elusive. There’s a champion and an MVP every season. What’s rarer is the player who taps into the sport’s deeper meaning—an athlete who becomes indelibly connected to a community and intertwined with a club’s intangible identity. Those players are award-winners, champions, inspirations and icons. They’re permanent. That’s the soccer EGOT.
Diego Valeri’s been in Portland for just five years, but that’s been enough time for the Argentine maestro to do it all. On Monday, he completed his MLS EGOT with the Landon Donovan MLS MVP award, which he won in a walk after leading the Timbers to first place in the Western Conference with 21 goals and 11 assists. Last year’s winner, David Villa of New York City FC, finished a distant second in voting conducted by players, team technical staffs and media.
The gold and silver trophy Valeri accepted Monday afternoon in Portland will be added to a collection that already includes the 2015 MLS Cup title, an MLS Cup MVP award, three Best XI appearances and the sort of status within a club and community that’s rare in any league, much less MLS. He’s not only revered in Portland, he’s pretty much become a Portlander.
“You’ve been a revelation for us on the field. But you’ve also been a revelation for us off the field,” Timbers owner Merritt Paulson said Monday before the trophy presentation. “You embody what it means to be a Portland Timber. I can’t be more proud that you wear the Timbers colors.”
There’s real soccer history in the Rose City—the Timbers first took the field in 1975—and Valeri already is Portland’s soccer colossus. His 2013 arrival from Lanús helped stabilize a team that stumbled out of the MLS gate, and he overcame an ACL injury to help engineer a long-awaited first championship two years later. He’s among the most skillful players to ever set foot on an MLS field, and his combination of panache and productivity is rare. The 2017 campaign served as a prime example of Valeri’s ability to be almost all things. He already was having a good season as Portland’s attacking fulcrum when striker Fanendo Adi suffered a hamstring injury in early August. The club’s primary finisher was lost, but the season wasn’t. Valeri scored nine goals in the ensuing 10 regular season matches—most of which game during a record-setting nine-game streak—as the Timbers edged rival Seattle for first place. He equaled the fifth-highest total in league history with 32 goals and assists combined.
In so doing, Valeri became just the second MLS player to reach 20 and 10 in a single year. The other is Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco, who has an MVP trophy on his mantle and is in position to add an MLS Cup winners medal on Saturday. But La Formica Atomica has a ways to go to reach EGOT status. That’s no slight on the Italian forward, who’s a decent guy by all accounts. Instead, it’s a testament to Valeri, a rare individual of comprehensive commitment who’s simply adored at an entirely different level.
The testimonials presented by teammates, rivals and colleagues during Monday’s award ceremony were a small indication. From retired greats like Donovan and Guillermo Barros Schelotto (now one of of three Argentines to win the MLS MVP award), to fellow Timbers, rivals and even AS Monaco’s Radamel Falcao (a former teammate at Porto), appreciation for Valeri’s talent was almost always accompanied by words about the man. Montreal’s Ignacio Piatti and Dallas’s Maxi Urruti called Valeri a “great person.” Teammates dubbed him a “role model” (David Guzmán) and a “big brother” (Zarek Valentin), and Donovan himself said Valeri is “an inspiration to all of us.”
Valeri possesses ruthlessness and graciousness in equal measure, and that’s reflected in the praise from his peers. They’ve seen what he can do on the field, and they’re surely aware of what he’s accomplished off it, whether it’s in the locker room or in his new American hometown. The stories are well known, but that doesn’t make them less impactful. His resolute, beyond-the-call-of-duty commitment to the Portland charity circuit is only the beginning. Valeri is a citizen. He brings his daughter, Connie, to support the NWSL’s Portland Thorns. He’s helped fans paint tifo and jumped in to play with a recreational co-ed indoor team. He’s approachable, unassuming and grateful in a manner that’s almost disorienting, then he steps onto the pitch and rips your heart out.
That balance in Valeri mirrors the balance in the city he loves.
"Our fans, they are very passionate and they are very respectful,” Valeri told SI.com in a 2016 interview. “It’s hard to have that passion, that energy, that love with your team and then that respect with the players. Sometimes, I think in life, the most difficult thing to do is manage the passion. When you love a lot, you can’t always control it. That’s very admirable for our fans. Maybe two days before a game they’re [standing in] lines to get a spot [in Providence Park’s general admission sections], but they have respect.”
In that same interview, Valeri discussed his tenure with the Timbers and the nature of “big” and “small” clubs. Lanús, his boyhood team, just lost the 2017 Copa Libertadores final to Grêmio, but for most of its history, it’s competed in the shadow of Buenos Aires’s “los cinco grandes” (Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing, Vélez Sarsfield and Independiente). Fans in Portland, one of the league’s smaller metro areas, will understand that to an extent.
“I grew up in a ‘small’ club. I don’t mind that,” Valeri said. “I know why you are a big player—not because you have famous jersey. You are a good player if you can make history in the place you are. I was very lucky about that in Lanús and in Portland. You are a good player not because you have the River Plate jersey or the Seattle jersey or the L.A. jersey. You can show them you are a good player if you be a good teammate, can give everything you have and leave something big in your place where you are.”
And so he has. If Valeri chooses to, he can build a shelf for his MVP trophy next to the framed poster in his home that reads, “WORK HARD & BE NICE TO PEOPLE.” That’s the EGOT.