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Diego Valeri, Our Guy

MLS: MLS-MVP Press Conference Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

I struggled to come up with much to write about this morning’s announcement that Diego Valeri had been named MVP. The press conference was a formality more than anything; we all knew ahead of time what it was about, who was going to be there, what was going to be said. Valeri, looking a little nervous, thanked everyone involved with the Timbers, his family, God. “Every individual award in our game,” he said, “is a collective achievement.” A packed press scrum mostly yielded pleasantries about what a great honor this was, how he never could have imagined it as a kid.

A couple months ago, I had the privilege of profiling Valeri for FourFourTwo. The idea behind the article was to get across to the rest of the world what everybody in Portland already knows: that Valeri is not just one of the best players in MLS, but as big of a humanitarian as you’ll find anywhere in professional sports. Even more than that, I wanted to convey that Valeri is emphatically Our Guy in a way that’s easy to doubt until you see it firsthand.

Valeri takes a moment to celebrate with fans at the MVP award ceremony

Valeri is the rarest kind of athlete—the kind who actually means it when he talks about how much he loves playing for his team. Most athletes sort of float just above the cities they play for, living and working there but not really there. They reside in this parallel world that occasionally brushes against our own, but is ultimately separate.

Not Valeri. Monday night, when most people probably would have been out partying, or at least drinking several expensive bottles of wine, Valeri was volunteering at the Children’s Book Bank—they’d already made the commitment to be there, so of course they went. He and Florencia sat down and got to work cleaning up donated books while Todd Diskin, CBB Partnerships Manager/107ist board member, was still explaining the process to the rest of us (they already knew the ropes).

I asked the group of Timbers Army folks who made it to the award ceremony if they were surprised about Valeri’s win. “For me, it was a bit of a surprise,” said Diskin. “When you look at the way the league looks at players, and the quality that’s out there, that he’d be highlighted, in our little MLS burgh.” Objectively, from an on-field perspective, it’s impossible to deny his claim, but something still felt, like Valeri himself, hard to believe. Here’s a guy who’s never been a European star, playing in a city whose fans still often feel like we have something to prove. But it’s precisely because we think of ourselves as “little” that Valeri fits in.

The thing about Valeri being Our Guy is that it’s a two-sided coin. His commitment to the community says a lot about him, obviously, but it says at least as much about us. There are two relevant facts in the book bank story: the fact that the Valeri family wants to volunteer their time for worthy causes, and the fact that a room full of fifty ride-or-die Timbers fans can be completely cool and welcoming and respectful towards the team’s biggest star.

None of us can take credit for who Valeri is, as a person or an athlete. But we can take credit for being the kind of community where he not only feels safe and welcomed, but wants to settle down and live his life. When I interviewed him for the FourFourTwo story, he referred to himself as a “simple guy.” He’s a simple guy, and we’re a little burgh, and today, we get to feel good about that.

So: here’s to us.