Valeri's MVP award shows why he's a perfect fit for Portland and MLS
From the moment Diego Valeri arrived in Portland in 2013, it seemed a perfect fit; for the team, the city, his family, for himself, and for a league trying to establish some street cred in the wider soccer world.
And on Monday, Valeri got the recognition he deserves as he was named the winner of the 2018 Landon Donovan MVP award.
MLS has long had an affinity for South American players and early MVPs included Carlos Valderamma of Colombia and Bolivia’s Marco Etcheverry. Argentina has also been well-represented; Valeri is the third Argentine to win the award, following D.C. United’s Christian Gomez in 2006 and Columbus Crew’s Guillermo Barros Schelotto two years later.
As the years have passed, the league has continued to cast its collective eye towards Argentina, with players such as Javier Morales — mostly with Real Salt Lake — dazzling fans around the league, and that trend continued in 2017.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 24 Argentina-born players played at least one game in MLS this season, more than any country save the U.S. (254) and Canada (25). Seventeen of those Argentines are on the attacking side, including maestros like the Montreal Impact’s Ignacio Piatti and the Columbus Crew’s Federico Higuain.
The attraction is obvious. As a country, Argentina has a history of producing creative, technical players. For players, the feeling is mutual and they can live the kind of quiet life away from the field that is near impossible to attain in their homeland. It was midway through Valeri’s debut season that he revealed to ESPN FC that a carjacking he sustained the previous October had convinced him to go ahead with a move to Portland.
But even as more MLS teams have looked south for attacking talent, Valeri has continued to stand out. His numbers have been mind-numbingly consistent, logging double-digit goals in every season save 2015. That year he was still in the process of recovering from a torn ACL he sustained late in the previous season and the campaign ended with success in the MLS Cup, with Valeri scoring in the final against Columbus.
In August he became the 18th member of the league’s 50/50 club. All the while Valeri has shown an endearing dose of humility, which further cemented his relationship with the Portland fans.
The MVP award is about single-season excellence, and Valeri was certainly deserving in 2017, though he had some competition. There was a time this season when New York City FC’s David Villa, who had 22 goals and nine assists, seemed destined to win the award for the second year running. The Chicago Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic had a case as well, tallying 24 times.
So how did Valeri separate himself? The latter months of the season tend to stick in the minds of voters and this case looks to be no different. Valeri finished the campaign on a hot streak that bordered on the surreal, scoring in an MLS record nine consecutive games and accounting for 12 out of Portland’s last 23 goals. That streak saw him move to the front of the pack.
This may be a bit harsh on Villa and Nikolic, but there was more to Valeri’s triumph than just getting hot at the right time. The most impressive aspect of his finish was that it came with Portland’s usual striker Fanendo Adi sidelined by a hamstring injury, requiring him to take on more of the goal-scoring load.
And he did, finishing with 21 goals along with 11 assists and leading Portland to the top spot in the Western Conference standings. Without Valeri’s goals, the Timbers would have been fighting for a playoff spot instead of sitting in first place at the end of the season.
That his side flamed out to Houston in the Western Conference semifinals under an avalanche of injuries does not diminish what Valeri accomplished. The postseason is its own beast. But with this award, Valeri will rightly be remembered for a stellar campaign that highlighted just how perfect a fit he is for his club and the league.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.