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  • On Saturday night, the 2017 league MVP looks for another chance at glory, and this time it's in the fortress of Atlanta United. But his Portland Timbers are more than ready to ruin the party.
By Grant Wahl
December 08, 2018

ATLANTA — There have been only 22 MLS Cup finals in history, so it’s remarkable that we have seen not one but two insane decisive moments in which an underdog’s pressure on a goalkeeper led to grievous keeper mistakes and subsequent goals.

The first came in 1999, when LA’s Kevin Hartman succumbed to D.C. United’s defensive pressure (and a terrible back-pass bounce on a rutted Foxboro Stadium field) and Ben Olsen scored to lead to D.C.’s victory. And the second came in the very first minute in 2015, when Portland’s Diego Valeri pressured Columbus keeper Steve Clarke into switching the ball to his left foot and then blocked Clarke’s attempted clearance into the Crew net. Portland would go on to win 2-1 in a hostile away environment.

“I remember everything [about that play],” Valeri said in an interview this week heading into Saturday’s MLS Cup final between Portland and Atlanta. “We were planning to press Columbus that day. They had a great build-up from the back using the keeper. And then I just tried to force the ball to Steve Clarke, who is now with us. He’s a great keeper with the feet. Just putting pressure on, trying to force him to his left, which is not his best one. And when I saw the ball touch the net I was so happy.”

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Here we are again three years later: Portland and Valeri, the 2017 league MVP, are playing the final in a hostile away atmosphere—this time the most populated one in MLS, with more than 73,000 fans expected at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But Portland has made a habit of eliminating good teams on the road during these MLS playoffs, from Dallas to Seattle to Kansas City, and Valeri sees no reason why the Timbers can’t do the same to spoil Atlanta’s coronation.

“It’s a game where we need to be very focused on the ball, on the game, and in performing as we want,” says Valeri, the 32-year-old attacking midfielder who scored twice in Portland’s return-leg ambush of Kansas City last week. “You have to be even using the energy of that stadium in your favor. But in the end, it’s 11 against 11, and the stadium doesn’t play the game.”

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Never before has an MLS Cup final had so much of a South American flavor. The continent’s representatives here include both coaches—Atlanta’s Tata Martino of Argentina and Portland’s Giovanni Savarese of Venezuela—and most of the top players from both teams: Portland’s Valeri (Argentina), Sebastian Blanco (Argentina) and Diego Chará (Colombia), and Atlanta’s Josef Martínez (Venezuela), Miguel Almirón (Paraguay), Leandro González Pírez (Argentina) and Tito Villalba (Argentina).

“I like it a lot, of course,” says Valeri. “It means there’s a lot of MLS identity coming from South America. I like the level of competition that South America brings to this league. I love it. And I want to see more and more as the years go on.”

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The connection between Valeri, his family (wife Florencia and 10-year-old daughter Connie) and the city of Portland has grown deep since their arrival in the Rose City in 2013. They’re fixtures at Portland Thorns games, with Connie wearing a Tobin Heath jersey, and they have done significant charity work in the city, including encouraging book donations from the community.

The key word is community, Says Valeri, “As parents, we really want to show our daughter: You cannot be happy with an individual happiness. It has to be a community thing. So we are always trying to be part of the community and give back something always. If the community is good, then you will be good.”

On Saturday night, Valeri has the chance to add another championship to the one he has already brought to Portland. But his story with the city will only continue. If you ask Valeri whether he would like to retire as a Portland Timber, he doesn’t hesitate. “I hope so,” he says. “A career is short, and sometimes you don’t decide if you can or cannot stay. But I hope for that, because I really love the club and community, and my family does too.”

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