Diego Valeri's dreams, on and off the field, have come true in Portland
PORTLAND, Oregon -- Diego Valeri stands barefoot on the terrace overlooking the backyard and surveys his domain. The pool has already been dug out and is due to be filled in next week. The patio for barbecuing will go in the right-hand corner, under cover in deference to Oregon's rainy winters.
A soccer net, one of the first purchases after they closed on their new house, leans up against the wooden fence to the left. The Timbers midfielder plans to paint the white lines of a miniature field himself. Valeri can already picture his 8-year-old daughter, Connie, kicking the ball around and laughing with her friends. He can practically smell the grill he'll fire up when entertaining teammates and extended family.
In explaining the influx of talented South Americans into Major League Soccer over the past few years, quality of life comes up often. There can be something greedy or unseemly in the way that some general managers describe leveraging desires for safety and stability for cheaper transfer fees. The desire for a better life has become such a stock answer as to lose of the emotional punch of what that actually entails.
"You can't even imagine," Valeri told ESPN FC. "It's hard to explain."
More than four years after he moved to the U.S. and despite being fluent in his adopted tongue, Valeri is still sensitive about his English. He often turns to his wife, Florencia, for nods of encouragement, to make sure he's articulating his thoughts exactly right. It's not just that -- some themes really are too big, too emotionally loaded, to neatly put into a few words.
Seeing his flushed look of pride as he stands out on the terrace, though, you start to get what he means.
He has known Florencia for as long as he's been forming memories. Their fathers are best friends, having been next-door neighbors as kids. Her dad used to tease Valeri about how one day he would end up with his daughter; it was a running joke among family friends for years. They went on their first date at the age of 12, kept it secret until they were 17 -- "she was embarrassed," Valeri says -- and they've been together ever since.
Life progressed just about as each would have optimistically hoped. Valeri caught on with Lanus, his boyhood club, spending nearly a decade as a regular starter in the Argentine Primera. Eight years ago, the young couple welcomed Connie into the world.
Still, something nagged at Valeri. He'd grown up in a house, with fond memories of its sprawling backyard. He wanted the same for his daughter. The neighborhood, though, had gotten increasingly dangerous. Lanus struggled with the global economic downturn and the increase in automation.
Apartment buildings at least offered the illusion of security, but the Valeris were contemplating moving abroad, leaving the Buenos Aires suburb of Lanus even before the carjacking.
They had just parked outside a friend's party in August of 2012 when four armed robbers surrounded their car. Connie was in the back seat; acting quickly, Florencia was able to scoop up the toddler and dash inside.
Valeri, not wanting to agitate the men further, worried they might try to storm the house, too, complied with their wishes. With one gun at his throat and another sticking in his ribs, Valeri surrendered his phone, his clothes, the car, "everything." There was one hitch: the vehicle was a new model, a push-button start, and the carjackers couldn't figure out how to turn it on. Valeri coached them through stealing his own car, telling them where the button was and that they needed to push on the brake to start the ignition.
"It's almost funny," Valeri said. "It's funny because nothing happened. But every day, things happen. People get killed. In that part of Lanus, if you ask 10 people, all 10 people would have gotten into this situation. Everybody. It's normal. It's almost funny. My cousin has gotten [robbed] four times."
After the incident, he instructed his agent to pursue a move more aggressively. A few months later, the Valeris landed in Portland.
"In every part of the world, things happen," Valeri said. "But you cannot imagine. If you are driving [in Buenos Aires] and you are stopped at a light, you need to have eight eyes. It's impossible. If you go to a park, you always look out for your phone and your backpack ... When you live like that, it's really hard not to live in that way."
Still, after his first week in Portland, Valeri noticed a subtle internal shift, an unclenching. He might never lower his defensive shields completely but a few nights after they moved to Oregon for good, he slept more deeply than he had in years.
Valeri has been a centerpiece of the Timbers organization from the moment he arrived. He's tallied 48 goals and 50 assists in 131 regular-season appearances, helping lead the club to the 2015 MLS Cup title. He plays with flair and panache that personify what makes coach Caleb Porter's team so fun to watch on their good days. The 31-year-old was recently named the third-best player in ESPN FC's recent #MLSRank countdown, behind only Sebastian Giovinco and David Villa, the two most recent league MVPs.
His work off the field has been nearly as influential, so well documented that many around with the club have bestowed upon him the tongue-in-cheek nickname of "Saint Valeri." His reputation for graciousness is not without merit -- there's also an intensity and depth to him that go beyond the "good guys of MLS" narrative.
In a lot of ways, his community involvement is another window into his upbringing, and Argentine soccer culture in general. Teams there arose more organically from their surroundings: part pro team, part YMCA. His mother played tennis at Lanus' headquarters long before he ever represented its soccer team.
"It's a community," Valeri said. "You grow up from the community." First with Lanus, then in Portland -- a club as in touch with the rhythms of its home city as just about any in MLS -- the give-and-take has long been a part of what he considers his duty as a player.
"Professionally, [Portland] reinforced what I thought about being a soccer player and being important in your place," Valeri said. "Sometimes, when you grow up in South America, the only way people think you're really successful is if you play for Manchester United, Real Madrid or Barcelona.
"Portland reinforced my thinking that you are successful if you have an impact in the history of a club, not because you're playing for one of the top teams in the world."
And so he shows up at charity events around the city, posing in countless social media selfies with fans. Valeri has become a regular at Thorns games at Providence Park, less out of loyalty than for what the leading National Women's Soccer League club symbolizes for his young daughter's future hopes and dreams.
"When you see the role models there for [Connie], it's really important for us as a family," Valeri said. "Women's soccer is huge in this country and with her starting to become interested in it, it's amazing ... She loves it. I love it."
When they first arrived, the Valeris moved into a sleek apartment complex along the Willamette River in Portland's booming downtown. Florencia had grown up in a smaller house without much of a yard and she liked the energy of living so close to the city's core. It took four years for Valeri to coax her out to the suburbs that they moved to earlier this summer and if she's honest, she's still not entirely accustomed to the wide-open spaces. Connie, though, plainly adores it. She's got her own playroom upstairs -- the "American Ninja Warrior room," her dad calls it -- and soon enough, she'll have a hand-painted soccer field to practice on outside.
Standing out on the terrace, Valeri is content.
"It's not about the material part," he said, pausing to choose his words carefully. "I'll be honest with you, and this is what I've told her," he said, gesturing in Florencia's direction.
"For me, this house represents a dream come true. When we got married, or even when we were young, we would talk about how nice it would be to have a house, or to live in a neighborhood. And we couldn't do it in Argentina, sadly. Now, we can.
"You can see it in Connie, in the way she lives in the house. It's a dream for me to have a yard, and it's a dream because the way we grew up, economically, we didn't have the possibility to have the house that we want. I grew up in a house with a yard, but I didn't have a pool. I didn't have the possibility. That only means a little, but it's important."
Does that make sense? He asks, just to make sure, forever self-conscious about the deeper meaning crossing the language barrier.
Yes, it does.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.