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The Timbers’ Most Indispensable Player: Diego Valeri?

MLS: MLS Cup Final-Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Diego Valeri retains the title of the Portland Timbers’ best player. And he is unquestionably the Timbers’ most-loved player. If you had to choose one player to be the face of the Timbers’ franchise, Valeri would be the obvious choice.

But is he the Timbers’ most-indispensable player?

Over at FourFourTwo, all of the above was part of Paul Tenorio’s criteria when he set out to identify each team’s most-indispensable player in both the MLS Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. Here is how Tenorio laid out the standard by which he assessed each team’s most-indispensable or “franchise” player:

In this case, it’s the most irreplaceable player on a team; the person each team would least like to lose in a trade or sale. Essentially the most important player to a team’s short- and long-term success.

For the Timbers, Tenorio chose Valeri, an eminently defensible selection as a result of Valeri remaining the Timbers’ best and most-beloved player.

But the case for Valeri as the Timbers’ most-indispensable player, at least as I would define it, is far from bulletproof. Here’s how I would define a team’s most-indispensable player: The player on the team whose absence would most affect the team’s chances of earning results.

This is arguably a little bit different from Tenorio’s formulation (it probably focuses on the short term more than Paul’s standard), and it is definitely a different question from identifying the team’s best player. But at least when it comes to assessing the current state of a roster, it gets directly to the point of identifying who the team could least afford to do without.

Let’s start with Valeri.

There is a veritable thesaurus of soccer cliches for Valeri’s role on the Timbers. He’s the straw that stirs the Timbers’ drink, he’s the maestro (perfectly-creased pants and all), the talisman, yada, yada, yada. As the attacking central midfielder, Valeri is naturally the focal point of the Timbers’ attack.

But the Timbers also have two other players in Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Blanco who can stir some drinks of their own, even if they’re not quite at Valeri’s level of mixology (at least in Nagbe’s case — the jury on Blanco is very much out on account of an insufficient sample size). And with some depth on the wings in Darren Mattocks, Dairon Asprilla, Victor Arboleda, and Jack Barmby, whoever replaces Valeri centrally would have their own replacement waiting in the wings.

As far as indispensability, therefore, Valeri isn’t a clear-cut choice. Valeri’s unquestionably important, and the Timbers are clearly better with him, but there are viable alternatives in Valeri’s absence.

So who else could be considered for the designation?

Throughout preseason it has appeared as though the Timbers are gearing up to return to a possession- and pressure-based approach similar to that they employed in 2013 and 2014. And although a front-four capable of playing smooth attacking soccer is important, a robust and well-balanced defensive central midfield is key to keeping the backline from being exposed.

The defensive midfield is likely even more important than the central defense, as Timbers history suggests. The 2013 central defense — which was largely successful — was anchored by the hardly world-beating revolving door of Andrew Jean-Baptiste (22 starts), Pa Modou Kah (20 starts), Futty Danso (15 starts), and Mikael Silvestre (8 starts). The biggest difference between 2013 and 2014 wasn’t the amount of talent on the Timbers’ depth chart, but rather was Timbers’ opponents exploiting imbalance between Diego Chara and Will Johnson (both of whom are natural box-to-box midfielders).

The partnership of David Guzman and Diego Chara — with Guzman as a clear six and Chara as an eight — is designed to avoid the imbalance that plagued Chara and Johnson in 2014, but to still provide the central-midfield dominance that allowed the Timbers to be so aggressive in 2013. But as the 2013-2014 experience shows, that’s a very crucial and very fine line.

The Chara-Guzman partnership, therefore, is arguably the lynchpin of what looks like it will be the Timbers’ primary tactical approach in 2017. And especially considering the relatively murky (certainly compared to the attacking midfield) depth beneath Chara and Guzman, there is a good argument that the integrity of that partnership is vital for the Timbers in 2017. Moreover, given Guzman’s role as a six and the importance of that position to maintaining central-midfield balance and the freedom that Guzman allows Diego Chara by anchoring the middle of the field, between the two of them, Guzman probably has a very slight edge in the indispensability department.

But that isn’t to say Guzman — or Chara, for that matter — is the only other player for whom you could make an indispensability argument. There really isn’t any player on the Timbers roster right now who can provide the holdup play and the gravitational pull among centerbacks that Fanendo Adi does. Given the questionable depth on the backline, a major injury to Liam Ridgewell could cripple the Timbers’ central defense.

And, of course, Valeri remains the Timbers’ best player and the face of the club.

The point, therefore, is not to say Valeri is the wrong pick as the Timbers’ most-indispensable player. There’s certainly a decent argument to be made that he is.

It’s to say despite his status as the team’s best and most-popular player, Valeri is not as obvious a choice as the Timbers’ most-indispensable player in 2017 as he may seem.