Match made in paradise: Portland's love for Diego Valeri goes far beyond the field

The Argentine star's impact on the Rose City transcends standings and scoresheets, impacting lives at Portland's grassroots.

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Nobody in Portland can quite believe they've got Diego Valeri.

When the Argentine came here in 2013, it was almost by accident. The Timbers had been eyeing then-U.S. men’s national team midfielder Mix Diskerud, an acquisition that was ultimately undone by the fine print in Diskerud's potential contract. Valeri was plan B.

What nobody could have foreseen was what Valeri would become. After five years in the Rose City, Valeri is not only a player who defines the Portland Timbers on the field, but he’s a man who inspires more effusive emotion off it. The universal love Valeri’s won in Portland transcends any other athlete’s — or probably, for that matter, any other public figure’s.

You expect them to show up for 30 minutes and pretend to paint a little bit, but no ... They've always done more than you'd expect

- Keith Palau

That level of admiration goes much deeper than what he does on the field. That's where it started, of course — Valeri is an elite enganche who orchestrates the Timbers' attack and also happens to score lots of goals — but what has everyone in awe is he also happens to be an almost impossibly good guy. It seems like a violation of some basic law of the universe for a human being to be both as gifted with a ball and as humble, circumspect and generous as Valeri is.

The outer layer of Portland's love affair with Valeri — the part that's observable from outside the city — is his community service. The marquee example is his collaboration with Keith Palau, the Timbers supporter who was named "Community MVP" by the league's MLS WORKS initiative in 2017.

Palau headed up a renovation of the visitation rooms at two foster care facilities — where foster kids get an hour each week to meet with their birth families — in Washington County, just west of Portland. "They tend to be cold and clinical," Palau says of the facilities. "You know, it's in a government building."

Under the banner of 107ist (short for 107 Independent Supporters Trust, the organized, dues-paying core of the Timbers Army), Palau started raising money to redecorate the drab Hillsboro room in Timbers green and gold.

Sometime during the fundraising and planning stages, Palau unexpectedly heard from Valeri. "I want to help," he said. "Let me know if there's anything I can do."

Palau didn't take it seriously at first. "I thought, 'that's nice to say.' " But Valeri came back, and he, his wife, Florencia, and their young daughter, Connie, showed up to build furniture and paint.

"You expect them to show up for 30 minutes and pretend to paint a little bit, but no ... They were here to work, and they stayed the whole time. They've always done more than you'd expect," says Palau.

A Portland trend: Everybody loves Diego

Courtesy of Todd Diskin

Courtesy of Todd Diskin

It's the same story with the other projects Valeri has gotten involved with. Once a year, the Timbers, Thorns and T2 teams, which all share the same ownership, organize Stand Together Week, during which the teams send players to work on community service projects. That's how Valeri found out about the Children's Book Bank, a Portland nonprofit that distributes free books to kids in underserved communities.

"He came and volunteered right after training," remembers Todd Diskin, partnership manager at the Book Bank. "He was amazed that all this existed," Diskin says, gesturing at the stacks of donated books that fill the nonprofit's Northeast Portland space.

Some kids don't have an atmosphere around them that's ideal. Books are a world where you can be involved with a reality very different than you are living in.

- Diego Valeri

Diskin gave Valeri the lowdown on childhood literacy: how kids living in poverty get, on average, 25 hours with books between birth and first grade, compared with 1,000 or more hours in more affluent communities. How that discrepancy affects educational outcomes for those children before they even start school. How working to change it is an anti-poverty measure.

Valeri's own account of his affinity for the Children’s Book Bank is almost startlingly personal, revealing the genuine empathy with which he approaches the world. "Some kids don't have an atmosphere around them that's ideal," he says. "Books are a world where you can be involved with a reality very different than you are living in."

The Argentinean playmaker spent the day cleaning donated books, but just as he did with the foster care visitation rooms, he didn't simply show up for a photo opportunity. "He reached out to me not too long after that wanting to volunteer, to do more," says Diskin.

He started bringing books Connie had outgrown, and at one point, all three Valeris came back for another book cleaning session, which Diskin opened up to Timbers Army members. Connie, now 8, held a book drive at the family's apartment building.

A handful of other causes in the Portland area have captured Valeri’s interest. One is Operation Pitch Invasion, which restores and builds soccer fields and futsal courts in underprivileged neighborhoods. Valeri is often seen at OPI court openings, and recently bought a piece at Art Without Pity, an art show benefiting the nonprofit.

He's also worked with the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, which organizes soccer clubs and clinics for the youth it serves. One day, he showed up to a futsal training to meet some of those youth.

Courtesy of Julie Roberts

Courtesy of Julie Roberts

There's more he doesn't talk about, not wanting it to look like he's out for publicity; it's common knowledge among Timbers Army regulars that much of Valeri's work in the community isn't publicized at all.

Ask him about why he's gotten involved in these causes and Valeri deflects. Much of it, he says, he gets wind of through Florencia, who he says is "behind everything" (he rarely refers to himself at all, instead defaulting to "we," by which he means himself and his wife). He's much happier talking about people like Palau and Diskin than about his own involvement, which he plays down as perfectly normal. "It's the way I want to live," he says. "I've always lived like that... We're all responsible for the place we live."

NEXT: Falling in love in Portland