Diego Valeri is awesome. Everyone in the PNW and their brother and their brother's dog, just about, knows Diego Valeri is awesome. But he's not perfect. It seems clear that he's more of a 70-minute player than a 90-minute player, which is really unfortunate. And given the way the game against the Fire went after Valeri went off (though this is just the most recent evidence - by no means is it the only evidence), it seems reasonably give some thought to who else on the Timbers' roster might be able to step in and help Portland close out games or otherwise maintain dominance when Valeri is off the field.
Current Backup CAMs
In the preseason, we saw some interesting choices. Nanchoff has some ability to distribute and dictate tempo, but maybe only at the reserve level - it's not clear that Porter thinks he could fulfill that role against MLS-caliber competition, and neither do I. Nagbe has played there before, but he's not really a playmaker; he's a deep-lying forward or inside forward that wants to create off the dribble instead of passing, at least primarily. And I think Valeri's positioning is better. Valencia played in the CAM role in preseason, but so far this season it's clear he's a direct attacker, not a playmaker (and to be clear, I would love to see him start up front some time or otherwise get significant minutes as a CF). Alhassan might seem ideal for the role, but as every Timbers fan knows, he holds on to the ball too long, and tends to drift out of games positionally. More discipline and he could pull it off, I think. And finally, Porter played Will Johnson there against the Fire. I love me some WJ, but he's really a box-to-box guy. He doesn't quite have the technical skills or vision to create the way Valeri does. In short, we've seen several players tried in the CAM position and all have their strengths and weaknesses.
It's worth interjecting for a minute and noting that I'm using the term center attacking midfielder or CAM to describe the position. I am doing this to maintain some flexibility in the tactical possibilities - Valeri is definitely a #10 in the sense of both playing that position on the field and doing so as a playmaker, as opposed to Nagbe's withdrawn forward style or Will Johnson's advanced center midfielder. The point is that any replacement for Valeri in the position isn't obligated to play like him, though, as I'd argue we've seen, that playing style makes the system work a whole lot better. Following from this, what I'll suggest below assumes that replicating Valeri's playing style is the point. If there's room to put someone there who plays differently, then I want to suggest Zemanski as a late-game forward destroyer (also, this is where we might actually miss Eric Alexander, to be honest). I suggest Z-man because I don't want to see the WJ/Chara duo broken up, and Zemanski has shown he can win balls and distribute decently, if not brilliantly. For my money, though there's an open question about hold-up play, if Porter is looking to kill off games, this is worth a try.
So who's the next-best CAM?
In some ways, I am surprised I haven't seen anyone suggest this (correct me if I'm wrong!). So part of the reason I'm writing this post is to see if someone has a good argument for why what I'm about to suggest is a bad idea. But if there is a lack of a second Valeri-style CAM on the Timbers such that when he leaves the pitch (and here I should say I do realize that the premise of this post is that not having someone who is a straight swap is what's causing the problem, and not just that Valeri is irreplaceable), then I think Caleb Porter should try in the position..... Frederic Piquionne. My reasoning boils down 1) his experience helps him be positionally sound; 2) he has demonstrated an ability to make killer passes; 3) he tracks back and plays defense all over the field; 4) if he's a 60-70th minute sub, stamina is less of an issue; 4) his patience and hold-up play has been better than most of the rest of the team; 5) he's actually better than Valeri at flicking the long ball on to someone in front of him - I have noticed that this happens a lot when he's on the field and it results in a turnover because he's the most advanced player; and 6) putting him there means if the Timbers want to shift to a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1, it's really easy, since he's technically a striker. The downside of this, if you can call it that, is that it presumes that RJ will come back and start - and I think that's an open assumption given what Piquionne showed during RJ's absence.
I am pretty enamored of this idea at the moment. It would seem both solve the problem of not having a replacement for Valeri, it frees up Zemanski or Alhassan to play on the wing, etc. And my favorite reason I like this idea? If Piquionne doesn't come in for RJ, then who does? EL TRENCITO!