PORTLAND — Even when Portland’s Diego Valeri is recognized for his own play, he somehow finds a way to turn the focus back on the team.
That’s no different now that he’s been named Major League Soccer’s Most Valuable Player.
“Since I arrived here I wanted to make an impact on the league and my club, and that’s made me happy,” he said. “Any reward is part of that. That’s been important for me.”
The 31-year-old native of Argentina had 21 goals and 11 assists this season for the Timbers, who finished atop the Western Conference.
He is the first midfielder in league history with 20 or more goals in a single season and just the second player overall with at least 20 goals and 10 assists in a single season. His 32 combined goals and assists were the most of any player this season, and rank him fifth in MLS history.
Valeri was named the league’s 2017 Landon Donovan MVP award recipient on Monday by vote of the league’s club managers, media members and current players. The other nominees included Atlanta’s Miguel Almiron, Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco, NYCFC’s David Villa and Chicago’s Nemanja Nikolic.
“You fight hard all season, and to be named player of the year is amazing,” he told The Associated Press. “You work hard for the team and to be recognized from your own people, it’s awesome.”
Valeri has scored 58 goals since joining the Timbers in 2013, most for Portland since the team’s inception in 1975. He also won the league’s Newcomer of the Year following his first season, and was named MVP of the MLS Cup in 2015, when the Timbers defeated the Columbus Crew for the league title.
He set a new league record with a goal in nine consecutive games this season from July 29 to Sept. 24.
Valeri’s talent — as well as his humility — has endeared him to soccer fans and non-fans alike in Portland. The Timbers’ accessible star is active in the community, known to pop in on rec league games to cheer — and not just for his daughter’s team. He and his family helped paint meeting rooms for foster children in Beaverton, Oregon, this summer.
“Since we arrived here with my family, everyone gave us love — that’s the word. Obviously from the club, the supporters, all the people of the city. A lot of people, friends we have now,” he said. “That’s hard to find when it’s not your country. We really appreciated that. That’s why it’s special for us and it’s our second home.”
He’s well-liked across the league, too. Valeri was also named the Timbers’ Player of the Year by both his teammates and the supporters this year.
In a ceremony Monday at the North American headquarters of adidas, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson called Valeri a “revelation to us.”
“I remember 2012 and our No. 1 team need was a creative attacking midfielder, and we’d been largely focused on a young American there,” Paulson said. “That deal wasn’t getting done and (GM Gavin Wilkinson) called me and said, ‘Let’s spend a little bit more money, and take a little more risk out of the equation. In Argentina there’s this guy named Valeri. He should be our target.'”
Asked for his favorite moment of this past season, Valeri said the finish of the regular season was best. The Timbers went 15-11-8, but got hit with a slew of injuries and fell in the two-legged conference semifinal to the Houston Dynamo.
“The end of the regular season, I think the Western Conference is really hard, and always the end of the season is an exciting moment,” he said. “We had a great run and we obviously finished at the top of the table.”
Currently, Portland is a team in flux. The Timbers unexpectedly parted ways last month with coach Caleb Porter after five seasons. He is the only coach Valeri has had during his tenure with the team.
Porter was named Coach of the Year for 2013, the same year that Valeri won the newcomer award. Well-respected by his players, Porter compiled a 68-50-52 record and guided the team to an MLS Cup championship in 2015.
“I met him. We ate lunch a week ago. It was a weird feeling you know, because no one expected it,” Valeri said. “We had a conversation and it’s understandable, it’s OK. It will be hard for the team, probably. But we as players we have to keep going, and he left a good base for the future.”