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Diego Valeri has been a 'game changer' for Portland, MLS - Giovanni Savarese

Portland Timbers captain Diego Valeri looks ahead to Saturday's MLS Cup showdown in Atlanta.
It was an up and down season for the Portland Timbers, who rode the talents of Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco to their 2nd-ever MLS Cup final appearance.
Alejandro Moreno breaks down what makes Atlanta United the favorites in MLS Cup, from their undeniable talent to their unique home advantage.

ATLANTA -- Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez, who was named Major League Soccer's MVP at a ceremony downtown earlier this week, and midfielder Miguel Almiron, who was also a finalist for the award, may be the two biggest stars when MLS Cup kicks off on Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

But they're not the only ones who have shined brightly throughout this postseason, as Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese highlighted during his news conference on Wednesday, singling out midfielder Diego Valeri as a "game changer" who has been hugely influential not just in Portland but for the league as a whole.

"I remember when he arrived in the league," Savarese said, flashing back to January 2013 when Valeri signed from Lanus of Argentina's Primera. "I actually remember some guys at ESPN, Argentinians, saying, 'Valeri signed with MLS. Things are going to get good.'"

One-hundred eighty MLS appearances, 68 goals and 65 assists later -- and that's before even mentioning his heralding the arrival of a whole host of talented South Americans into the league -- suffice it to say that that initial reaction was prescient.

"Right there, from the first day, he's been a game changer," Savarese said. "You don't get the nickname 'El Maestro' if you don't do certain things. He's been instrumental for MLS. He's been very important for the culture of Portland. On the field, he's been a player who can create magic, and one who is able to put things on his shoulders to work for the team.

"Sometimes, I think the best version of the players is the one you see off the field. He is a class act all of the time, and sets an example for everybody. I think he represents South America, Argentina, the Portland Timbers and MLS at a high level. We're lucky to have him. He never stops showing his quality."

He certainly hasn't stopped flashing it during Portland's run to a second MLS Cup final in four years. Valeri has tallied four goals and two assists in the playoffs, both of which are league highs. Longtime running mate Sebastian Blanco has been sensational, as well, adding three goals -- including the long-range rocket in the second leg of the conference final against Sporting Kansas City that turned that series on its head.

"I think especially in the Kansas City game, it brought the game to life," Portland goalkeeper Jeff Attinella said. "When he scores a goal like that, it kind of sparks everything. To know you have players like [Valeri and Blanco] that up front, that are able to create and pull things out of nothing -- sometimes when you need it the most -- as a back line, it reenergizes us to keep them off the board."

It has carried them this far, to a second championship game in less than a half decade, during which their leading men will step to the fore once more.

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