Analysis

Creator-turned-scorer: Valeri has made himself even more important to Portland

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Portland's icon has taken his goalscoring to new levels, highlighting how vital he is to the Timbers' playoff hopes.

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Diego Valeri’s legend in Portland is well-established. MLS Cup winner. Two-time All-Star. Holder of the all-time club record for goals scored. And now, after scoring for the eighth straight match, MLS record-holder in consecutive games with a goal.

But Valeri as an elite goalscorer wasn’t always the design in Portland.

Following the 2012 season, the Portland Timbers needed to perform a hard reset. After almost two years under John Spencer, the Timbers’ attack had failed to launch while the defense was increasingly leaking goals. What began in 2011 as an expansion side on a promising near-playoff run quickly turned into a 2012 race for the wooden spoon.

Spencer was gone in the summer. Caleb Porter arrived in the winter, but the team that Porter took over was hardly suited to play the style that the former Akron coach wanted. Direct and stodgy, Spencer’s teams played without a true playmaker in favor of trying to find the likes of Kris Boyd in the box. As such, atop Caleb Porter and Gavin Wilkinson’s to-do list in the winter of 2012 was finding a talismanic playmaker.

Enter Diego Valeri.

If Valeri can add two more goals and one more assist to his account in the season’s final four games, he’ll join a 20-goal, 10-assist club that currently only has one member: Sebastian Giovinco.

Acquired from Lanus as Porter’s first Designated Player, Valeri was brought to Portland for one reason: To be the creative force in Porter’s attack. More than a goalscorer, the Timbers needed a No. 10 who could pry open defenses.

As it turns out, they got themselves a man who could do both.

With 10 goals and 13 assists in his MLS debut 2013 season, Valeri was the primary playmaker for a team with four other players who scored seven or more goals. Likewise in 2014, Valeri registered 14 assists to go with 11 goals on a team that also received significant goalscoring contributions from Maxi Urruti, Fanendo Adi, Gaston Fernandez, Will Johnson, and Rodney Wallace. Although his 2015 regular season was shortened by recovery from an ACL tear suffered in the last game of 2014, Valeri still logged eight assists – and just three goals – in just 20 starts.

Through his first three seasons, the Timbers got exactly what they bargained for in Valeri: An elite playmaker who could also contribute to the goalscoring haul.

But something changed for the Timbers in 2015. Although that season is remembered for the Timbers’ ultimate MLS Cup triumph, Caleb Porter’s side had to overcome a significant offensive downturn. Instead of the goalscoring-by-committee that the club employed to fill up the nets in 2013 and 2014, the Timbers had become largely dependent on Fanendo Adi to score goals. Aside from Adi’s 16 tallies in 2015, no Timber scored more than five in Porter’s third year at the helm. As a result, the team that scored 54 and 61 goals in 2013 and 2014, respectively, registered only 41 in 2015. A consistently staunch defense and a late-season attacking surge propelled the Timbers to their first trophy in MLS, but the team was far from the goalscoring Porterball machine that was the hallmark of the coach’s early era.

Enter, yet again, Valeri.

Needing a second threat to go with Adi, Valeri took up the goalscoring mantle in 2016 with 14 goals to go with seven assists. That trend has only strengthened this year, with Valeri banging in a single-season club record 18 goals to go with nine assists. If Valeri can add two more goals and one more assist to his account in the season’s final four games, he’ll join a 20-goal, 10-assist club that currently only has one member: Sebastian Giovinco.

Brought to Portland to be an elite playmaker, Valeri has become an elite goalscorer who can make plays. And the structure of the Timbers’ roster has changed to take full advantage of this evolution.

In 2013 and 2014, the Timbers surrounded their playmaker with goalscorers. The thought was simple: Put players who can finish around Valeri, and he’ll find them. In the last couple years, however, the Timbers have empowered hybridized playmakers around Valeri to take full advantage of the Maestro’s ability to score.

That’s why, last offseason, the Timbers paid big money to bring in Sebastian Blanco. And it’s why they passed up big money to keep Darlington Nagbe.

As a result, whereas the Timbers scored goals by committee in 2013 and 2014, they have made plays by committee in 2017. Although Valeri’s nine assists remain most on the team, Blanco isn’t far behind with seven, and David Guzman follows with six. Even with four games remaining, 2017 is the first time in the club’s MLS existence that three players have six or more assists.

And the 2017 Timbers would be in bad shape without Valeri’s goalscoring binge. In light of Adi’s midsummer slump and late-summer injury woes, Valeri’s production is the reason why the Timbers’ attack hasn’t stalled. The resulting misfiring attack and unreliable defense would have condemned Porter’s team to another dance with the red line – or worse.

Valeri’s record-setting run, then, is both the completion of his transformation into an elite goalscorer and a primary reason why the Timbers enter the season’s final six weeks with a realistic chance to earn a first-round playoff bye. That, in short, is why Valeri may add yet another accomplishment to his legend: MLS Most Valuable Player.

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