DIEGO VALERI doesn't know quite what to say.
The Portland Timbers have just rallied to tie the star-studded New York Red Bulls during the March 3 Major League Soccer opener, spurred by a highlight-reel goal from the team's biggest offseason addition. Valeri's a 26-year-old midfielder from Argentina, the 5'10" 165-pound son of a shoemaker—and he just helped electrify the team's 35th straight league sellout at Jeld-Wen Field. And he could very well be the brightest new star in the Timbers lineup.
But Valeri is hardly caught up in the moment. He's not searching for what to say, but rather how to say it. It's all running through his head like a midfielder chasing the action—but the thing is, Valeri's grasp of the English language hasn't caught up to the pace of the Spanish streaking through his mind. One towel around his waist and another over his right shoulder, he walks toward his locker and the familiar face of a Timbers media staffer. The staffer explains to Valeri that reporters wish to speak to him, and that Valeri should grab a shirt to cover up. Something's lost in the exchange, however, and before the TV guys shoulder their cameras, the staffer again suggests a shirt. Valeri covers up with a long-sleeved button-up and answers.
"I feel good," he says to close out his first locker room interview as a Major League Soccer (MLS) player. "I enjoy this match. The first match is special, always. This is good."
The scrum breaks up after just a few questions. It's clear Valeri understood what was being asked about the smooth buildup and composed strike that would eventually be named MLS' Goal of the Week. But expressing his reaction is a different story. Minutes removed from being in complete command of the ball at his feet, he's not in control of his words. And as the cameras and tape recorders swing to reporters' sides, Valeri is apologetic.
"Sorry, sorry—I can't," he says as Timbers staffers and reporters alike offer words of encouragement about his locker room performance. "Everything I want to say, I can't."
It's the day before the opener and Valeri has just finished a chat in Spanish with soccer writer Ives Galarcep. I break from the pack of reporters surrounding coach Caleb Porter and am introduced to Valeri. A media staffer explains that I'd like to write about him, and after pleasantries are exchanged, it quickly becomes evident that we'll conduct our interview in English. The translator—Oswaldo—is there, but he acts more as a walking, talking edition of 501 Spanish Verbs. Valeri wants to speak with me—not through Oswaldo—and he's determined to do so.
We talk for about 20 minutes. He calls Portland "fantastic," and tells me he likes how the city is organized. He's taken his four-year-old daughter, Constanza, to the zoo and smiles when describing a photo of her with a lion. Valeri was four himself when he fell in love with football ("In Argentina," he says, "we breathe soccer"), and 10 when he first thought about making a living doing it. The Valeri family owns a small shoe factory in Buenos Aires—"Men's shoes, everything is leather," he clarifies—but when Valeri started getting serious about the beautiful game, his father preferred he not enter the shoe business.
"He tell me, 'You only play,'" Valeri says.
Through the stops, starts, and de facto English pronunciation lessons, it's evident he aches to see his parents and his brother. He says his wife, Florencia, and daughter enjoy living downtown on the waterfront and that it's reminiscent of home. He's felt welcome both on the field and off, and says he wants to give Timbers Army "much happiness," before pausing to turn to Oswaldo for clarification.
"Much happiness? Many happiness?" he asks, eyes squinting a bit.
Oswaldo responds, "Much happiness, or a lot of happiness."
Valeri quickly looks back at me with a smile. "Only this," he says. "They're great."
When Valeri's speech speeds up and his words connect a bit more fluidly, you get the feeling he's repeating phrases he's said before. It happens as we're wrapping up, and I ask why he's going through such pains to learn the language so quickly. After all, not every pro athlete from another country rushes to learn the same language that pesky local reporters speak.
"Communication, it's everything, on and off the field," Valeri says. "We go on the road and we can't learn. I want to start this month. I have coaching, an English teacher. She teaches me words and sentences, but I want to start. I want to watch films and read books. Only English."
I tell him it's sounding pretty good so far, that his English is better than my Spanish.
"Oh no," he laughs with an exaggerated waving gesture, "sufro."
It means, "I suffer."
I ask what he's read lately. The translation of the exact title is foggy, but the book is on St. Benedict's 12 Steps to Humility. As we part, Oswaldo suggests the man who may very well become the best player to ever don a Timbers jersey could probably write the 13th chapter.
Valeri first saw the United States during a 10-day trip in 2005, when his hometown club, Lanús, played a friendly match in Los Angeles. The visit planted a seed in his mind about eventually playing in the States, and the seed germinated after speaking with fellow Argentinean and Real Salt Lake star Javier Morales about how much MLS had grown in this country.
Portland expressed interest in Valeri, and eventually brought the Argentinean national teamer to the Rose City on loan with an option to buy his contract from Lanús after one season. A "designated player," Valeri's salary doesn't count against the league's cap. The Timbers' previous designated player signing—striker Kris Boyd—earned $1.5 million, but per league and club policy, Valeri's salary hasn't yet been released. After Valeri's performance in the regular season opener, first-year coach Porter was quick to put a price tag on the centerpiece of his possession-focused, pass-happy attack.
"He's worth every penny," Porter said. "He's capable of pulling a rabbit out of the hat at any given moment."
Valeri's smashing MLS debut convinced more than his coach. Kevin Alexander of Timbers blog Slide Rule Pass says he's impressed by Valeri's creativity and subtle passing range, but most enamored by his ability to find pockets of space between defenders.
"He never hides and is always working to make himself available for the pass, which isn't always true of 'playmakers,'" Alexander said via email. "He acts as a fantastic pivot for the attack with three very mobile attackers around him.
"He won't do as much running as a [Darlington] Nagbe or a Ryan Johnson, but when you have the game intelligence that he has, you don't have to."
Timbers captain and midfielder Will Johnson roomed with Valeri while the team trained in Arizona during the preseason. He says the game simply slows down for a player of Valeri's caliber.
"He sees passes and flicks and just knows where everybody is," Johnson says. "That's the hardest thing because the game's going so fast. When you have a guy who can keep track of everybody while he has the ball at his feet—that's when you have players who can play at the highest level."
Following Porter's post-game press conference on March 3, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson stood, smartphone in hand, along the cavernous hallway beneath Jeld-Wen Field that leads from the pressroom to the locker room. It's the same day the Oregonian ran a feature on Paulson's desire to stay out of the spotlight for his team's third MLS season, but I can't resist asking him what he thought of Valeri's night.
He called Valeri a "real #10" on the field (soccer-speak for the team's best player—the guy who can take over a match in a moment) and a "10" off of it (your more traditional meaning; as good as it gets). He insists Valeri should win Goal of the Week (which he did in a landslide) and that the team brought him on for a reason.
"He's a special player," Paulson said. "I don't want to over-hype him. We didn't talk about him that much. We, frankly, hyped Kris Boyd up a lot before he came here. Diego—we're just letting his play do the talking."
Valeri may very well have plenty to say by the time the Timbers' eight-month regular season runs it course. After the opening draw against New York, Red Bulls coach Mike Petke told reporters Valeri could become one of the best players in MLS. How he holds up physically to 35,170 miles of air travel, 17 away matches, and one physical league will certainly play a role in that dialogue—along with a reputation that's sure to grow.
And fast: During Portland's 2-1 home loss to Montreal on March 9, Valeri drew his share of triple-teams from the stingy Impact defense. And though it didn't exactly stop him from cleverly finding teammates and looking increasingly threatening ("I still felt like he got the ball enough to do what we needed him to do," Porter said after the game), such attention is likely a sign of things to come. Slide Rule Pass' Alexander says other teams will formulate plans on how to deal with Valeri, and that it'll be interesting to see how the player and coach counter. Next chance? The first Cascadia derby of the year on Saturday, March 16, when the Timbers carry the Cup north to face nemesis Seattle and a crowd that numbered more than 66,000 last season.
"Valeri thrives on company, in having players near or running beyond him," Alexander says. "So my concern is what happens if and when he's tightly marked or we're having trouble getting our pressing and passing games going."
And (knock on timber) what will become of Portland should Valeri develop into a crutch for the attack and then miss time on the field (knock on timber again!)? "It may make things more difficult for us when we don't have a guy as good to replace him," Alexander says.
Valeri doesn't seem worried. And neither does Sherilynn Rawson. The principal of Woodburn's Nellie Muir Elementary School—a longtime season-ticket holder and 107ist board member better known within Timbers Army as "Sheba"—is a lifelong bilingual educator. She says Valeri's goal of kicking the translator in a few months is as realistic as his motivation (he started working on his English six months prior to moving stateside) and willingness to feel his way through conversations.
"You learn a lot more by having interactions with other people," Rawson says, noting Valeri's high school German classes will also help. "If you're willing to try things out, you're more likely to get feedback about whether you're right or not. That, in turn, compels you to learn so much more."
While he takes it all in, Valeri is discovering more about a club, city, and league that have so far impressed him.
"Javi [Morales] told me five years ago, the league wasn't like this," he says. "It's developed year after year, it's grown. I find a team, a club, MLS, that is spectacular. The organization, the infrastructura. I think in five years, it's going to be famous. There are big teams, and Portland has nothing to be envious about."
Of course, the way he talks about his teammates, Soccer City USA may have plenty to be excited about. Valeri praises the Timbers' mix of physicality and technique and lights up when describing the men who cover his back and his flank.
On Diego Chara, the crafty Colombian defensive midfielder and fellow designated player, who always lets Valeri know where he is on the field: "He has a lot of technique, and then run-run every time. It's important for me to have him behind me."
And on Nagbe, the budding third-year star who may very well bloom with Valeri feeding him the ball: "Darlington surprises me. He's there, and zoom, aceleración."
Right now, Valeri can only converse comfortably with the former. Imagine Portland's attack when both players can understand what he's saying.
Tune in to the Mercury's Blogtown at portlandmercury.com as Brian Gjurgevich live blogs all Timbers home games this season.