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Forest for the Trees: In praise of Diego Valeri

Portland’s talisman is aging like fine wine.

MLS: LA Galaxy at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

What a difference a year can make. Last year the Portland Timbers were entering the playoffs after an uneven season, looked like a team with little confidence, and, perhaps most worryingly, Diego Valeri was potentially on the verge of leaving the team. This year, Portland is charging into the playoffs as one of the strongest teams in MLS, has a full head of steam, and has at least one home game to look forward to.

And perhaps most importantly, they have Diego Valeri. And he is showing why he is still a bona fide Timbers legend.

There was a moment last season where we all thought that we might not be able to enjoy Valeri in a Timbers jersey anymore. So, now that we are past that moment of ennui, let’s pause and take a moment to truly appreciate how wonderful Portland’s first Argentine Designated Player has been in the 2020 season.

Frankly, we should have all seen this type of season coming after Valeri scored a banger like this earlier this year:

Valeri has shown in 2020 that he is still capable of scoring fantastic goals in fantastic ways. His attacking position has moved higher up the pitch this season, and as such is finding more direct shooting opportunities. While his goals are not the slaloming, scintillating runs he announced himself to Timbers’ fans with, they are still just as beautiful:

Seeing a 34-year-old attacking midfielder turned forward do that is impressive no matter what league you’re watching. One would be forgiven to think that Valeri’s goal scoring prowess would diminish with his increased age. Goals like the two above, along with the fact that Valeri leads the Timbers in goals, prove how wrong you would still be.

It’s of course not just the goals he’s knocking in himself. Valeri continues to dish out assists that are things of beauty:

Creating opportunities for others is nothing new to Diego Valeri’s game. In fact, you could anticipate it being the one constant of his game as he grows longer in the tooth. It’s the fact that he’s continuing to do so at such an impressive rate that sets this season apart. According to FBRef, he leads the Timbers in shot creating actions (by a bit), and he also ranks seventh in the entire league in shot creating actions.

And therein lies the beauty of Valeri’s play in 2020. It’s not just the continued production and impact he’s having on the scoresheets — it’s how he is elevating the play of everyone else around him.

For instance, there have been five games across all competitions that Valeri did not start this season. Valeri came on as a substitute in four of those games. In all four, there was a noticeable increase in the intensity of Portland’s attack once he came on. In fact, in three of those four, Valeri either scored a goal himself or had a hand in creating one. Portland’s attack is subpar when he’s absent and influential when he’s there.

Has this season been on the level of Valeri’s best, such as his 2017 MVP campaign? By the comparison of pure numbers and statistics, no. But consider the amount of attacking burden Valeri has had to take on this season since Sebastian Blanco went down with an ACL tear, and how he has stepped up to be the main attacking facilitator for the team. And then factor in how all of those contributions have helped this Timbers team score the second-most goals in MLS. When you look at it from that perspective, a real argument could be made that, on weight of impact, 2020 is right up there with 2017.

He’s been a goal scorer, facilitator, and fulcrum for the Timbers this year. All this in a year which everyone expected Valeri to take a step back and potentially come off the bench. Instead, this is the season where Valeri joins rarefied air, becoming just the third player in league history to record 80 goals and 80 assists.

As Portland enters into its final week of preparation before the playoffs begin, we don’t know how this weird and crazy 2020 season will end. We don’t know how much longer we will be able to watch Valeri play soccer, let alone do so in such an impressive manner. So, before this crazy ride starts on its path towards its end, I think it’s important we all take a second to enjoy the continued wizardry of El Maestro while we can.