The Portland Timbers have a not so secret weapon in the playoffs: Diego Valeri comes alive in the moment. Will the same be true against Sporting Kansas City in the Western Conference finals?
The Portland Timbers are in the Western Conference finals. Since their inception in MLS competition in 2011, they have only qualified for the playoffs on three occasions, this being their fourth. This is their third appearance in the Conference finals.
The Timbers do have a knack for success in the playoffs. And they are proving it again this season.
The Timbers have faced the two best teams in the Western playoffs not from the mid-West. They have beaten both of them, in dramatic fashion on both occasions.
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They squeezed past FC Dallas in the knockout stage with a 2-1 win, although they were largely in control of the match. And then, in the Conference semi-finals, they held off a ferocious comeback from the Seattle Sounders and snook through on penalties. On both occasions, in large part, the Timbers have one man to thank: Diego Valeri, the man for the big occasion.
In three playoff matches thus far, Valeri has scored two goals and recorded two assists. He also made key drives forward at key times and was the most prominent attacking threat for the Timbers in all three matches.
And Valeri has a history of performing in the big matches. He has two goals and five assists in 11 playoff matches, a staggeringly good return for the biggest stage. And one of those goals came in the first minute of that famous MLS Cup final victory over the Columbus Crew in 2015.
Valeri has a knack for performing his best in the biggest moment. And the Timbers most certainly need it this weekend. Playing Sporting Kansas City, perhaps the best team in the Western Conference, the number one seed, and one of the most complete teams in all of MLS, the Timbers face quite the challenge. Valeri will need to be at his best.
Sporting KC is one of the best defensive teams in MLS, even if their statistics are not as impressive as previous seasons. They like to control the midfield, have tight, tidy possession, and dominate games through smart positional rotation and relentless movement off the ball. The Timbers, meanwhile, will sit deep, allow KC to orchestrate the play, and then attempt to counter with speed and precision in transition.
Valeri is regularly at the heart of these counters, usually the player to instigate the press at key moments or burst through from the midfield and drive at an exposed defence. He will find it tough going to do so against this Sporting team. But the Timbers will be relying on him to do so.
Usually, when Portland rely on Valeri to deliver in the biggest moments, he does. Will it be the same here?