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

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Where Valeri and Oteiza come from, intensity and passion often go hand-in-hand with violence and organized crime. "Those were the times, unfortunately, when a lot of crazy stuff was happening in Argentina," says Oteiza. "People getting killed at the stadiums."

That's something Valeri is all too familiar with. "Every team in my country has or [has] had violent experiences," he says.

By Valeri's later years at Lanus, Florencia had stopped bringing Connie to matches, fearing for her safety. The family knew they had to get out of Argentina when they were robbed at gunpoint in 2012.

For men living in poverty where Valeri comes from, football "is the only way we have," Oteiza says, "to release all this incredible frustration and anger and pain." He recalls being shocked, at his first Timbers game, that people drank beer in the stadium without fights erupting.

Around the same time Valeri arrived in Portland, the Timbers Army, which produces its own line of merchandise, came out with a new t-shirt with a fitting slogan: "Welcome to Paradise."

It didn't take long for Valeri to settle in on the pitch. He scored 10 MLS goals in 2013, and it was in that first year that he first kissed the Timbers crest on his shirt after scoring, a gesture that makes Oteiza's voice shake when he talks about it. In 2015, after spending much of the season recovering from a torn ACL, Valeri took 27 seconds to notch the Timbers' first goal in the championship match against Columbus — the fastest in MLS Cup history.

By then, Valeri had adopted Portland as his off-the-pitch home in earnest. "When my daughter started to settle down and have a normal life right as a kid," he says, "there was a moment where I [thought] that Portland is my home."

Connie, who was four when the Valeris arrived, is a Portland kid through and through. She plays for a youth club at Rose City Futsal and follows the Thorns religiously.

She got her dad into the team, too. Despite growing up with Lanus, Valeri says the Thorns are the first club he's had the chance to truly support; he rarely attended matches in person as a kid, saying, "our economic situation wasn't the best."

It was Connie — who's more impressed with Tobin Heath's skills than her dad's — who got him in the door, but Diego soon became a supporter in his own right. Like his community service work, his support for the Thorns isn't some occasional token gesture.

"It's great atmosphere and it's a great team," he says. That, too, reminds him of the football culture in Argentina. "You're waiting for the weekend to be at the stadium to support your team."

To say Valeri has embraced Portland as his home doesn't quite capture the intimacy of the relationship he has with this community. The feeling that he belongs to the city is pervasive, and Oteiza isn't the only Timbers Army regular he's struck up a friendship with.

Courtesy of Thundercats FC

Courtesy of Thundercats FC

After a match one day in 2016, Valeri spotted a rail banner with the words "Valeri's Club" written in an arc across the top. Intrigued, the Valeris asked who painted the banner. That's when the family got to know the Thundercats.

You know in The Sandlot, when Benny's like, 'put your glove in the air'? That's exactly what it is. You make a run and the ball will get there ... I'm still in awe. None of that shine or coolness has gone away.

- Jared Grawrock

The Thundercats, a co-ed futsal team who play at the same Northeast Portland facility as Connie, started out as an open-invite squad. "If you want to learn how to play," says Michelle DeFord, "that's what we can do."

Just like Diskin and Palau, the Thundercats didn't quite believe it the first time Valeri said he wanted to play with them. "We were like, 'We can't break Diego Valeri,' " remembers DeFord, who painted the banner. "He can come when we do open play."

Valeri showed up and kicked a ball around with the adult team and a gaggle of kids. But he wanted to play. Eventually, a week came around when the team was short on subs, and Valeri came through, along with Shade Pratt, who played for the Thorns at the time. Nobody remembers the score, but the league's mercy rule, which normally kicks in when one team has a seven-goal lead, went ignored.

"You know in The Sandlot, when Benny's like, 'put your glove in the air'?" says Jared Grawrock, asked what it was like to play with Valeri. "That's exactly what it is. You make a run and the ball will get there ... I'm still in awe. None of that shine or coolness has gone away."

That's the general feeling around the city. Almost everybody, sooner or later, gets emotional talking about him. He still seems too good to be true.

It's hard to gauge Valeri's own awareness of his stature here. He's glad to spread joy from the field, but he recognizes that what he does for a living, ultimately, is just a game. "After the game is done," he says, "and after you retire, you're a simple guy. You're just one more."

Asked why he, a guy who has three caps for Argentina and is consistently lauded as one of the best players in MLS, wanted to spend a Wednesday night playing in an adult rec league, he pauses, looking faintly bemused.

"Because I love to play," he answers, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "And they're my friends."

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