Valeri gives Timbers star power needed to push past FC Dallas

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The former MLS MVP helped his team get into the Western Conference semifinals, with his experience standing in contrast to an FCD team without a star

The Portland Timbers are into the Western Conference semifinals, thanks in no small part to Diego Valeri.

The Argentine playmaker scored a gorgeous free kick to give his side the lead in the first half and capped things off with a precise shot from the top of the box to give the Timbers a 2-1 win over FC Dallas in Wednesday's knockout round match.

The 2017 MLS MVP had a dip in form this season. That's normal for a 32-year-old playing under a new manager, going through a few formation shifts and coping with the realities of becoming an older player. It's also going to happen almost no matter what after a 21 goal, 11 assist season. Yet when the Timbers' season was on the line, Valeri stepped up and made sure they'd play on, with a conference semifinal against either the rival Seattle Sounders or Western Conference No. 1 up next for the Cascadia club.

It was a game in which we knew the differences would be minimal, that both teams would look to hit with their strong counter-attacks, that attacking chances would be infrequent. The margin for error became even slimmer for the Timbers when Larrys Mabiala hauled down Dominique Badji in the 58th minute and was sent off for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. With FCD already looking for an equalizer, the pushes forward became even more frequent from the hosts. Rather than despair, the club stayed true to Giovanni Savarese's game plan and eventually was able to score on a counter-attack to seal the contest.

If you see a freeze frame of the goal that ended up being the decider, it's clear that there was plenty of work to be done after Sebastian Blanco noted there could be an attacking chance. He scooped the ball to Jeremy Ebobisse, but the second-year forward had four FCD defenders and the goalkeeper closer to him than any teammates. Valeri made a run to the top of the box, quickly but not sprinting so far that it would make a pass to him impossible. He got the ball with goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez well off his line but still had to finish through traffic, including FC Dallas center back Matt Hedges who had taken a position on the line. 

"I think that was a moment where the team knew how to be smart and keep its discipline. They made sure to make it difficult for them," Savarese said. "When we had the chance to go forward, we were quick and able to react fast. Ebobisse did a fantastic job to find Valeri and was clinical enough to score the second goal."

Savarese didn't exactly lavish praise on the veteran, keeping his comments short both speaking to MLS Soccer and speaking to written reporters later. "Valeri found a second goal that was very, very important. He worked some magic again," he told the league site before telling writers, "Big players know how to be important in big games and he did a great job today."

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The coach doesn't need to build up Valeri, though. He's right that Valeri knows how to come through in big games. It's something that for all the effort a player like fiery forward Maxi Urruti or rising star right back Reggie Cannon put into getting FCD back into the match, there's not a comparable player on the FCD roster who was able to lift the team. 

Valeri himself downplayed his role as well, saying, "I think the hero was the team. It was an ugly game. They played well and we fought for this and we advanced, and that’s what we wanted so I’m very happy about the team.”

Spoken like a true star.

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