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Diego Valeri back in the fold as Timbers prepare for MLS season

In this July 7, 2019 photo, Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri controls the ball during the first half of an MLS soccer match against New York City FC in New York. It seemed inconceivable that Valeri, the team’s captain who had bonded with the city, would don another jersey in Major League Soccer. But the season stretched on without a deal between the club and its all-time goals and assists leader. (Adam Hunger / Associated Press)
In this July 7, 2019 photo, Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri controls the ball during the first half of an MLS soccer match against New York City FC in New York. It seemed inconceivable that Valeri, the team’s captain who had bonded with the city, would don another jersey in Major League Soccer. But the season stretched on without a deal between the club and its all-time goals and assists leader. (Adam Hunger / Associated Press)
By Anne M. Peterson Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. – Toward the end of last season there was mounting concern that Diego Valeri might not return to the Portland Timbers.

It seemed inconceivable that Valeri, the team’s captain who had bonded with the city, would don another jersey in Major League Soccer, or anywhere else for that matter. But the months stretched on without a deal between the club and its all-time goals and assists leader.

When Portland’s season ended with a loss at Real Salt Lake in the opening round of the playoffs, Valeri was mum on the contract negotiations.

But in December, he agreed to a multi-year contract extension. The Timbers are paying Valeri with targeted allocation money, which means the Argentine midfielder has likely taken a pay cut. The deal also freed up a designated player spot for the team.

For Valeri, coming to terms was all about family. He and his wife, Florencia, are active in the community and daughter Connie is a fixture on the field with her dad after games at Providence Park.

“You all know that my daughter, this place is her home. And for my wife, she is in love with the community, the city and the club,” Valeri said. “We are very happy about it.”

General manager Gavin Wilkinson hinted at the rumored contentious nature of the negotiations but noted that in the end, bringing Valeri back was important to the Timbers.

“Obviously getting Valeri sorted was, from the start of last year actually, a key objective. The unfortunate part is it took so long for all parties to come back to where we knew we needed to be,” Wilkinson said at the team’s recent media day. “From a club perspective and from a fan perspective, we’re all delighted that he’s back. What he has done for this club, and what he will continue to do, is remarkable.”

Valeri is about to embark on his eighth season with Portland and joined the Timbers as they headed to Costa Rica for a two-week training camp

This season should look a lot different from last, when the team spent the first 12 games on the road because of construction to expand Providence Park. The Timbers finished the regular season 14-13-7 for sixth in the Western Conference standings.

Valeri came to the Timbers in 2013 from Lanus, a top-division team in his native Argentina. He went on to become Portland’s all-time leader in MLS goals (76) and assists (81).

In 2015, he scored a goal 27 seconds into the MLS Cup final and the Timbers went on to win the title with a 2-1 victory over the Columbus Crew. He was named the match’s MVP.

Two years later, he won the league’s MVP award after wrapping up the season with 21 goals and 11 assists. It was the first time in MLS history that a midfielder topped 20 goals in a season.

Along the way he became captain of the team and the face of the franchise. He endeared himself to Portland and is known for popping up at rec-league games to cheer. He and Connie are ardent supporters of the city’s pro women’s team, the Portland Thorns. The family has volunteered for the Portland Book Bank and helped raise money to give “You Are Loved” scarves to foster kids.

“It was a priority for us to make sure that he stayed. We were looking to find the right way for him to be able to stay here in this club that he’s given so much, and that has given so much to him,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said. “We felt that he needed to continue here, also for his family. I’m glad personally that we found a way to make that happen.”

Now 33, Valeri’s on-field role may be winding down but he can still be a mentor to younger players coming in. Savarese said don’t count Valeri out just yet.

“Knowing what he’s capable of doing, he’s somebody that we know exactly how well he can change a game, he’s got the qualities to score goals and make assists. That, I think is going to continue to help the team,” Savarese said. ”There’s going to be more competition, there’s going to be more competition from everyone, and everyone has to make sure they’re always on their toes. And then we’ll see, see if he needs a little bit more time to manage some minutes, some games, but I think that we’ll come in decisions that we’ll make mutually.”

Happy to be back, Valeri suggested the lengthy negotiations were simply part of the business, and counted Timbers owner Merritt Paulson among the reasons for his continued loyalty to the team and the city. Valeri has often said he plans to settle in Portland after his playing career.

“As soon as Merritt expressed to me the wish of me staying in the club, in the organization, it was something that was easier than I thought to solve,” Valeri said. “And then obviously for me and my family, for my wife and my daughter, after all the support that our supporters and the community gave us when it was known about our negotiation, it was easy for us to decide, being honest.”

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