It was far from surprising to see Diego Valeri's name on the shortlist for Major League Soccer's MVP award earlier this week.
The Portland Timbers midfielder put together a remarkable season, becoming the second player to score 20 goals and add 10 assists in a single campaign, finishing with 21 and 11, respectively. The first: Toronto maestro Sebastian Giovinco, who took the league by storm in 2015. While the league's move from three MVP finalists to five gave Valeri extra cushion, his season is a true standout in a season that saw the usual suspects (Valeri, Giovinco, David Villa) and new faces (Nemanja Nikolic, Miguel Almiron) alike shine bright.
While midfield counterpart Almiron had a fine year running the dynamic Atlanta United attack, Valeri's was something special. While he's certain to face steep competition for the award from Villa, his strong 2017 campaign raises the question: was it the best by an MLS midfielder yet?
Now in its 22nd year, Major League Soccer has seen its fair share of brilliant midfield talent. Individual players like Thierry Henry, Preki and Dwayne De Rosario were regularly spectacular, if not quite historic, in their North American careers. Legends of the game like David Beckham, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Carlos Valderrama were able to change the fates of a match but couldn't quite hit all-time league heights.
Overall, Valeri's real competition comes from a trio of league legends. Possibly the league's first superstar, Marco Etcheverry was at the height of his powers in 1998. The Bolivian dominated the league with D.C. United, scoring 10 goals and adding 19 assists in 29 games. One of the league's initial designated players, Guillermo Barros Schelotto donned Columbus Crew yellow and played like absolute gold, winning the MVP award in 2008 thanks to a seven-goal, 19-assist season.
And of course, any list of MLS greats is incomplete without Landon Donovan. Choosing the U.S. legend's best year is nearly impossible, but his final full season in 2014 was breathtaking to watch. Partially fueled by a World Cup roster snub, Donovan scored 10 goals and added 19 assists, teaming up with Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes to lead the Galaxy to their third-highest point total ever.
At this point, it's tough to leave Valeri off the shortlist. For a Portland team that was floundering in mid-summer, the Argentine served as the heart and soul of the Timbers. With regular striker Fanendo Adi in and out of the lineup due to injury, Valeri became the offense's best finisher. Since joining Portland in 2013, Valeri has scored on 34.7 percent of his shots on goal. This year, his efficiency spiked to 53.8 percent.
While his place in the midfield pantheon is up to debate, there are few players more important to their teams this postseason than Valeri is to the Timbers. His resolve and individual ability will be put to the test in full for the return leg of the Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Dynamo. On Monday night, Portland limped away from BBVA Compass Stadium adding to their long-list of injuries.
Heading into the series, regular starters David Guzman, Fanendo Adi and Sebastian Blanco were already out due to injuries. On Monday, Larrys Mabiala, Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe also exited with hip, foot and calf ailments, respectively.
Chara's seems the most damning of the three, as the pit bull of a midfielder fractured his fifth metatarsal. If Chara misses the match on Sunday, it'll increase Valeri's responsibilities on the defensive side of the ball. Already without Guzman, Chara's tireless motor and well-timed challenges allow Valeri and Nagbe to press forward further in the attack. While Amobi Okugo filled in admirably on Monday, he hasn't played regularly for Portland since early June, and isn't as mobile as Chara.
If Blanco can return from his burn-related injury, it'll be a massive boost to a Timbers side that sorely needs its main contributors on the pitch. Regardless of his involvement, there will be plenty of pressure on the Argentine playmaker to carry the Timbers to the conference final.
While Valeri's regular season was spectacular, postseason success is often the final barometer to measure an all-time great campaign. Etcheverry's 1998 campaign ended as D.C. United lost MLS Cup to Chicago -- the only season of the league's first four D.C. didn't win the title. Donovan's 2014 mastery gave an iconic image of the great going out on top, only to be thwarted with a 2016 half-season comeback. Barros Schelotto boosted his case in 2008 thanks to a six-assist performance in the postseason, including a trio of helpers in MLS Cup.
Valeri has long been one of the league's best No. 10s. This year, he asserted his place atop the position rankings in MLS. If he's going to establish himself as the best playmaker the league has ever seen, carrying Portland to an MLS Cup title would make his case close to complete.