As the clock ticked down and the Portland Timbers remained 1-0 behind against NYCFC in Saturday's MLS Cup final, one question continued to dominate: where is Diego Valeri?
At 35 years old, Valeri isn't the force he once was. We know that. But even with limited minutes in 2021, he's still managed to come up with a couple of big goals and remains a deadly creator with the ball at his feet.
Finally, in the last minute of normal time, Valeri was introduced. With reports abound that his time with the Timbers is at an end, this was to be his final goodbye. His last hurrah. Right?
Well, not quite.
Yes, Felipe Mora did go on to score a dramatic last-minute equalizer to take the game into extra-time, but Valeri was merely a bystander for that moment of moments. And when the penalty shootout came, the veteran stepped up second, but saw his tame effort saved by NYCFC 'keeper Sean Johnson.
"He's a player that since he came to Major League Soccer, he showed his quality," Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said after Saturday's showpiece. "He made this league a better league.
"He made the Portland Timbers be what it is. And he's shown all his quality, he's played always with so much passion and he's done a fantastic job to have been an extremely important player for this organization. He's a legend for Portland."
Legend is a word tossed around all too often these days but in Valeri's case, it's just. In 309 appearances across nine seasons for the Timbers, the Argentina international has scored exactly 100 goals, setting up another 78. He helped Portland win MLS Cup in 2015, winning the game's MVP award, made another two finals, and guided the club to the MLS is Back Tournament title last year.
Valeri also won the prestigious Landon Donovan MVP Award in a 2017 season that yielded a remarkable 21 goals in 32 MLS appearances. In all, he's been named in the league's Best XI three times and made the All-Star team on four occasions.
If it takes two paragraphs just to name a player's honors and achievements at one club, you can be sure the title of 'legend' is appropriate.
"He's one that has shown why these types of players are important to come to Major League Soccer and he allows his way of playing, he allows MLS to be a better league," Savarese continued. "So extremely proud of what he has given us. Proud to have been able to be with him these years as coach of the Portland Timbers. He has a very special family, he's just an example of what foreign players should be for Major League Soccer and for any team in Major League Soccer."
Veteran midfielder Diego Chara has been with Valeri through thick and thin with the Timbers, witnessing the very best of his genius up close and personal.
“Amazing,” Chara said of his teammate. “He helped to grow the culture of the team to a different level. The experience of playing with Valeri was an amazing experience.”
A missed penalty and the sight of Valeri standing alone, fighting back tears as a losing finalist isn't an appropriate ending for one of the greatest players in Portland Timbers and MLS history.
But make no mistake, Valeri will always be remembered as a winner, one of the very best.