Match made in paradise: Portland's love for Diego Valeri goes far beyond the field
For a pro team's star player to be this embedded in his community isn't normal, of course. But the fact that he sees it that way is an important part of why Valeri is so universally beloved here. To really understand the depth of the love affair between Valeri and this city, you have to understand two things: the soccer community in Portland, and where Valeri himself comes from.
A lot of ink has been spilled about the "authenticity" of the gameday atmosphere at Providence Park: the elaborate tifo, the smoke, the ritualized setlist of never-ending chants What's not as well understood outside Portland is that the whole phenomenon is a legitimately grassroots endeavor — and that it has a reach that goes well beyond the stadium.
I knew if this guy signed, he was going to be the greatest Timber ever in the history of the club. I'm talking about a completely different level, something that's just not common in MLS.
There's history here, dating back to the NASL Timbers of the 1970s. The modern-day Timbers Army started with the resurrected USL team; back then the supporters group was "25 people banging on pickle buckets," as Diskin puts it (he was there). In the mid-2000s, when the campaign to get the Timbers into MLS started, it wasn't a corporate ownership group but members of the Army, who often wound up at City Council meetings, lobbying to bring the league to Portland, hashing out bureaucratic details with reluctant council members.
Today, there are two 501(c)(3) organizations affiliated with the Army: OPI and the Gisele Currier Scholarship Fund, which raises money for local kids who otherwise couldn't afford to play club soccer.
Mirroring Valeri's attitude, most people take it as a given. "There happened to be a lot of civic-minded people involved, people who cared about the community," 107ist board member Sherrilynn Rawlson says. "It seemed like a natural development."
Start asking around, and you quickly realize the Timbers Army is a huge extended family. Talk to Rawlson, who stands in section 116, and she'll ask if you know Michelle, in section 103. Michelle will ask if you know Darren, the drummer. Darren, naturally, is friends with Frank, who bangs one of the big drums that are the Army's beating heart.
Everybody says to talk to Frank.
Franklin Oteiza is a Chilean immigrant who fell in love with the Timbers back in 2003, in the club's USL days. He was Valeri's first introduction to this strange fiefdom, serving as a spiritual guide when the Argentine arrived in Portland.
When my daughter started to settle down and have a normal life right as a kid, there was a moment where I [thought] that Portland is my home.
To hear Oteiza tell it, Valeri's arrival in the Rose City was spun by the fates. He knew about Valeri's exploits at his boyhood club, Atletico Lanus — how, in 2007, the then-20-year-old helped his club win its first-ever Apertura title, the same year the squad had gotten a hard-fought road draw against league giant Boca Juniors. He remembered commentators hailing Valeri as the next big thing when he went to Porto on loan in 2009.
"I knew if this guy signed, he was going to be the greatest Timber ever in the history of the club," Oteiza says with the certainty of a man who's lived and breathed this game his whole life. "I'm talking about a completely different level, something that's just not common in MLS."
Oteiza felt a kinship with Valeri even when his acquisition by the Timbers was still a rumor. The footballing cultures of Chile and Argentina have a lot of shared DNA, and when Valeri signed with the Timbers, Oteiza couldn't get over the feeling that he needed to talk to him, to tell him about his adopted home, one South American expat to another.
"It was really important for me to tell this guy we're for real," he remembers. "That here we chant and clap and sing for victory for 90-plus minutes ... This is it, this is just like Argentina, man. Just like Chile. We sing with all this crazy power, and we're not going to stop."
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One day shortly after Valeri's arrival, the drum corps was unloading at the stadium. "As I'm parking, I'm telling my buddy, I need to talk to Diego, I need to talk to Diego," Oteiza said. As if on cue, Valeri emerged from one of the park's arched gateways. "Right there in front of me, man." Valeri, who was still learning English, was relieved to meet somebody who sounded like he came from back home.
"He told me the story about the Timbers, and I was shocked," says Valeri. "He told me about the history, about the Army, the way they are organized, the way they support the team, they support the city. It was amazing. I didn't expect that history."
The grassroots nature of the Army reminded Valeri of the way football works in Argentina, where clubs tend to be supporter-owned. "You don't find that in different places around the world, in the big clubs," he says.