COLUMBUS, Ohio — From playing against one another in Argentina to sharing meals at the dinner table in the United States, Diego Valeri and Federico Higuain have seen their relationship grow from that of just competitors to that of actual friends.
The Columbus Crew will welcome the Portland Timbers to MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday in the MLS Cup Final, and a game within the game will be seeing which Argentinian playmaker outdoes the other to help will his side to victory. Higuain is hoping to hoist MLS’s ultimate prize over his head with the rest of his Crew teammates while Valeri and the Timbers are aiming to ruin the party in Columbus by winning the trophy and taking it back to Portland.
The two veteran No. 10s will not be directly matched up against one another, of course, but Sunday’s showdown will mark the latest meeting between Valeri and Higuain. The two of them squared off during the earlier parts of their careers in their native land, but they were just colleagues from afar then, players who knew of each other but had no real connection.
Now, they are much more than that, having established a personal relationship off the field since their arrivals in MLS.
“Over (in Argentina), it’s a little more difficult to do that. Here, you have the chance to get together more with fellow Argentines,” Valeri told SBI. “We had the possibility of getting together and getting to know one another a bit better when he visited Portland with the Crew and when me and the Timbers visited here in Columbus.”
“I had the opportunity to get to know him here, to have meals with him, spend time with his family,” added Valeri. “He’s a great person, which is the most important thing.”
The feeling is mutual.
“As a person, he’s a great individual,” said Higuain. “We’ve had the chance to sit down and eat, and with the rest of the Argentinians on his team. We’ve always had a good time.”
While the two of them hold each other in high regard from a personal standpoint, they also are complimentary of the quality they bring to the field for their respective sides. The 29-year-old Valeri has been a catalyst for the Timbers since arriving in 2013, racking up 23 goals and 35 assists, and Higuain, 31, has done an equally-impressive job by scoring 35 times and setting up 32 others in his three-and-a-half seasons with the Crew.
Those gaudy statistics not only reflect the remarkable stints the two compatriots have had since joining MLS, but also how far they have come as players. Higuain and Valeri were established pros back in Argentina, but never were able to make the jump abroad stick during the early chapters of their careers.
Higuain had spells with Besiktas in Turkey and Mexican side Club America, but neither of those lasted very long and he found himself back in Argentina. Valeri, meanwhile, tried his luck in Portuguese soccer with FC Porto and then in Spain with Almeria to no avail.
It was not until they joined MLS, some six months apart, that they truly became important figures for foreign clubs. More than that, they became MLS stars.
“We’ve evolved, and that’s in part due to the intelligence of each of us,” said Valeri. “Federico is a very intelligent person, very pensive, and, obviously, there’s a value here in the No. 10 position where coaches give you the freedom to move around. We’ve grown.”
Their continued development and comfort levels in the U.S. have undoubtedly been key ingredients in their stateside success, but another reason for that is MLS coaches’ propensity to play with an attacking midfielder.
Whereas a lot of the rest of the world has gotten away from playing with a true No. 10, MLS teams continue to build, at least in part, around a creative string-puller. Higuain and Valeri are examples, but so too are fellow Argentines Ignacio Piatti and Mauro Diaz, as well as Kaka and Benny Feilhaber.
“I think the playmaker within a team can show himself in this league because this league is about growing soccer, about playing better soccer, about making soccer important,” said Higuain. “That’s why players in my position can do a good job. Lots of teams use No. 10s, and I think everyone who likes soccer likes to see teams do their best to play a positive style. MLS likes positive soccer, and that’s because it’s the way to continue to grow.”
Added Valeri: “I like it. I like seeing a league where a No. 10 is valued, where the majority of coaches aim to have a No. 10 that gets forward.”
Both Higuain and Valeri will need to do that on Sunday in order to have their respective attacks clicking on all cylinders, but tough match-ups await each of them. Higuain has to go up against a speedy and persistent defensive midfielder in Diego Chara while Valeri will face off against the physically-gifted and cerebral Tony Tchani.
With those individual battles likely proving challenging, it will be up to the two Argentines to dig deep into their bag of tricks to perform well and maybe come up with the type of game-changing pass or shot that can win a match. Or in this case, a trophy.
Sure, no good friend wishes badly on a companion, but relationship that was born in MLS will be put on hold as Higuain and Valeri try to outperform the other.
For one night, they will be frienemies.
“I think it’s going to be great,” said Valeri. “I consider Federico a player of tremendous quality, a very good player with unique abilities. We have to limit him, we have to try to stay on top of him, and I’m going to do my best to help my team. It’s going to be tight, just like any final.”