There are some advantages to being short in soccer. The short guys have a low center of gravity, which leads to increased dribbling ability and balance. The short guys are compact, hard to chase down, and it’s even harder to knock them off the ball. Typically, the short guys get fouled a lot – they’re agile, quick, and wily.
Diego Maradona, 5’5. Pele, 5’8. Lionel Messi, 5’7.
Diego Chara, 5’7.
Chara is a short guy. The Portland Timbers’ longest-tenured designated player has been labeled by his owner as “the most underrated player in MLS”, and it’s a moniker the diminutive Columbian deserves.
Diego Chara is a very interesting player. He mixes stereotypes and positions, personas and responsibilities.
On one sequence, he cuts through a defense like a knife through butter, the ball glued to his foot, whirring downfield until releasing a perfect pass.
For the next five minutes, Chara is displaying all the traits of a South American diva, flopping, time-wasting and chopping down players with hideous tackles.
Chara was brought in by Gavin Wilkinson in 2011 to play as an attacking central midfielder. In actuality, Chara has slotted in as a defensive midfielder the last three years. He plays the engine position, the buzzing hub of the Timbers.
Diego Chara is easy to love. Throughout the three years of Portland Timbers MLS soccer, he has been the franchise’s most consistent performer. In 2011 and 2012, he started 28 of the teams’ 34 MLS games and, including this year, he has only not played in six games he has been available for.
This season has been Chara’s best so far. Released by Caleb Porter into a more dynamic, two-way midfield role, Chara has used his pace and determination to get forward and back like he was a human yo-yo.
His finest moments of the season – a massive lunging tackle, set up by a lung-bursting 30 yard run against FC Dallas to deny a clean-cut chance, and a game-sealing dribbling move to set up the Ryan Johnson’s second goal against Houston – were both made of grit and personal gravitas.
He is a gritty player and that makes it hard to appreciate his game. The skill is there, but he doesn’t let it peak through as much as he should. Instead, Chara likes to remind us that even though he is small, he can cut it physically in the center of a midfield battleground in one of the more physical soccer leagues on the planet. Chara is a very good tackler and although Will Johnson has gotten the credit for being the midfield enforcer this season, most of the dirty work is left to Chara, who seems to relish in it.
Chara’s best ability, though, is his passing. His assist totals may not be eye-catching, but he is very often the man to set up an assist to set up a goal. He is one of the most willing passers in the league; a man who’d rather deliver the killer ball than eventually score the goal.
These days, Chara is loved in Portland, where his heart and ability are obvious. But it hasn’t always been easy.
Chara came to the United States not speaking any English, trying to adapt with a young family to a completely new country. Chara’s good friend, Jorge Perlaza, was traded halfway through a tumultuous 2012 season in which Chara stopped making his trademark darting, juking runs forward and instead turned into a midfield hit-man, racking up ten yellow cards and getting sent off in Salt Lake, earning a reputation as a dirty player.
His two coaches, John Spencer and Gavin Wilkinson, did nothing to help him; in fact, the midfielder was benched by Wilkinson. Chara also suffered from not having a real central midfield partner in 2012 like he had with Jack Jewsbury in 2011. No player can play his best when he has to prop up Lovel Palmer.
In that sense, Will Johnson has been great for Chara. The two players already have a good understanding in the middle of the park, and Johnson’s presence has allowed Chara to be more adventurous going forward, while Porter’s style of play has capitalized on Chara’s passing ability. He’s been one of the better players in the league this year.
Chara still can improve. He hasn’t scored in almost two years despite getting in attacking positions regularly, and he very often tries to fit another pass into a move that is screaming out for a shot.
He also commits too many fouls, but that is more forgivable than his tendency to embellish fouls and waste time at the end of games. He isn’t a dirty player; it seems like that is just the type of soccer he learned how to play in Columbia. His dive when fouled by Alan Gordon in the San Jose game almost a month ago was beyond Oscar worthy … it was Jurgen Klinnsman level.
You have to wonder where Chara’s ceiling is. Has he maxed out on his potential? Chara has been capped twice by Columbia, but is not in the picture for Columbia’s upcoming World Cup campaign. He’s in as good a situation as he ever will be in MLS. Chara is 27. How much better can he get?
If he stays just where he is right now, the Timbers have a fantastic player; he’s a player who takes care of himself, works hard, and plays with gumption and determination. If he gets any better, look out. Right now, Diego Chara is the most underrated player in MLS. Merritt Paulson was right about that, unlike Vancouver’s uniform choice last Saturday.
If Chara gets any better, he could become one of those great short players that we remember for a long, long time.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports