Diego Chara has never been an MLS All-Star, but he's 'irreplaceable' for Portland
ATLANTA -- Diego Chara thought he had missed his chance.
The diminutive midfielder was 17 years old, playing with local youth side Club Atletico Boca Juniors in his hometown of Cali, Colombia. Diego Umana, a coach with Deportes Quindío, came calling to see if there were any prospects he could bring up to the professional level. But that day, Umana opted for some of the other team's prospects. In a sport in which opportunities are fleeting and have to be seized at the right time, Chara thought the opportunity had passed him by.
"That was very frustrating," Chara told ESPN FC. "But I got a great message from my mom saying I had to wait for the right time. After that, two or three months later, the same coach came again to the club, and he chose me and took me to the professional level."
These days, opponents around MLS no doubt wish that Chara had remained in the shadows. The Portland Timbers midfielder has been laying waste to opposition attackers since joining the club in 2011, and usually doing it with a smile that still manages to say, "You're not getting by me today."
And on a team in which Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco have been getting plenty of accolades during the postseason, Chara has been doing what he has always done: timing his tackles with precision, cutting off passing lanes and kick-starting the Timbers' attack.
"I think Chara is a player for us that's irreplaceable," said Timbers GM Gavin Wilkinson following Portland's triumph over Sporting Kansas City in the Western Conference championship. "Every year we talk about, 'Can we find someone to be his successor?' I don't think it's possible. So we're going to ride Chara for as long as we possibly can."
Indeed, the Timbers' record in games that Chara doesn't start is a stat that has been beaten into submission, but it bears repeating. It's absolutely horrid. Portland was 0-5-3 in such games this season and hasn't won a match he missed since 2015.
"It's his professionalism, his mentality, it's his belief in the organization," Wilkinson said. "And it's also someone that has been with us from the start and has seen the growth of the club. I think every single player respects him. And there's no one player that looks at Chara and doesn't want to work for him."
Chara's beginnings in the game were modest. He would spend hours in the backyard playing with his father Jesus and his brother Felipe, who also played in the professional ranks with the likes of Atletico Nacional and Deportivo Cali. His younger brother Yimmi is currently with Brazilian side Atletico Mineiro.
"It was a tricky moment," he says of his upbringing. "Some things are difficult to grow up with, there were money problems. But I think [overall] it was great. We were very disciplined kids, and that made it easier for us to be professional soccer players."
Chara has long carried that discipline onto the field, although in his youth he thought his future lay closer to goal, playing as a forward or winger. But around the age of 15, he began to make the transition to the center of midfield. The fact that Felipe played in that position was a source of inspiration. So was another midfield destroyer of that era, former Real Madrid and Chelsea star Claude Makelele.
"Makelele is my favorite player of all time because of what he represents as a player and as a person," Chara said. "When he left Real Madrid, the team was completely different. Madrid was not able to find another player like him. He made a difference in every team he played."
The same could be said of Chara, who was soon making a name for himself in the professional ranks. In particular his exploits in the Copa Libertadores with Deportes Tolima got him noticed by Wilkinson, who upon signing him in 2011 made him the first designated player in the team's history.
There were the usual difficulties in adapting to a new country, culture and language.
"It took one or two years to be comfortable," he said. But Chara and his family, which includes wife Cindy and their four children, are now dug in, and life off the field suits him.
"It's different here, the people are more respectful," he said. "They take time to ask for a picture or an autograph. In Colombia, the people are a little bit more passionate."
Chara's move to the center of midfield that began as a teenager carried with it its own cost, of course. Holding midfielders are often shunted to the background, their work going unnoticed. The kind of overt recognition has been slow to come as well. Chara has never made the MLS All-Star team, nor has he been named to the league's Best XI. Yet recognition can come in more subtle ways. Certainly there has been widespread admiration for what Chara has done for the Timbers, especially in the wake of the team's MLS Cup title in 2015.
"It is hard because in this sport the players that have more attention are the ones that score; forwards, wingers," he said. "And yes, sometimes I feel underrated, but I feel OK to do my role, and that makes me happy.
"When I go to the grocery store, the people come to me and say, 'Thank you for everything you do for the team.' That makes me feel happy because the people really appreciate the role that I have in the team."
Even Wilkinson admits that Chara is a bargain for what he brings to the team.
"You look at Chara and he is underpaid in MLS, and I think we realize that as an organization," he said. "But it's a matter of how and when we look after him. For us, he's an important player, and every single week he turns up."
That importance will be driven home Saturday when Portland tries to upend Atlanta United in the MLS Cup final. The bulk of his responsibilities will be to stifle the attacks led by Atlanta's Miguel Almiron, league MVP Josef Martinez, as well as former teammate Darlington Nagbe. But given how the Timbers have performed in the postseason, starting with the knockout-round victory over FC Dallas, Chara is of the belief his team can claim its second MLS Cup in four years.
"After the Dallas game, we got a lot of confidence with our style of play, and of course the great performances of Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco is doing great right now," he said. "In my opinion, the team deserves to be here in the final."
And if Portland emerges victorious, a little bit more of the spotlight will shine in Chara's direction.