Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco grew up together; now they're MLS Cup hopefuls 6,800 miles from home

BEAVERTON, Ore. -- The distance between Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Portland, Oregon, is more than 6,800 miles. The flight time is approximately 17 hours and 15 minutes, and that's if you manage to fly direct. Driving is practically impossible -- the Darien Gap on the border between Colombia and Panama is basically impenetrable, a 55-mile break in the Pan-American Highway that runs from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to the southern tip of Chile. Should they ever find a way to pave that bit of swampland, Buenos Aires to Portland would take you something close to 200 hours by car.

For Timbers teammates Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco, who have known each other since they were boys playing for the same youth academy in the southern suburbs of Argentina's biggest city, the metaphorical distance is even more yawning than that.

Would they ever have imagined, when they first started playing together on Lanus' senior squad in 2006, that they'd end up here, of all places? In Portland, Oregon, in the MLS Western Conference finals vs. Sporting Kansas City (second leg Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), the two most important players in a small-market team battling for its second league championship in four years?

"No," Valeri said from a bench at the team training facility in Beaverton last week. "Never."

Blanco agreed: "Impossible."

The Timbers were a minor league team in 2006. Providence Park was still predominantly a baseball stadium. Both Valeri and Blanco harbored dreams of one day leaving their hometown for a bigger country, but those musings were murky and undefined. Before signing with the Timbers in 2017, Blanco had been to the U.S. only once, to Miami, and he pictured New York skyscrapers, not "Portlandia."

"We never thought about this," Valeri told ESPN FC, with a smirk that was borderline patronizing, gesturing at the facility around him, on a lovely autumn Northwest day. "We never imagined."

Blanco, again: "The opportunity for what's happening is incredible."

Valeri and Blanco were aware of one another almost from the start of their respective soccer careers. Although they both came up through Lanus' system, Valeri is two years older, so they played at different age levels before finally linking up in the first team.

To belabor the mileage imagery just one more time to underscore how small-world all of this is: Their childhood homes were less than 3 miles apart, about a 15-minute drive without traffic. Where they come from, the bordering neighborhoods of Lanus and Lomas de Zamora, very few residents ever even relocate elsewhere in Buenos Aires, let alone outside the country, and fewer still outside the continent.

"It's not very common," Valeri said. "They don't have the possibility."

Blanco clarifies further: "There are no opportunities. And in Argentina, people have deep roots. They don't want to leave. They want to travel, of course, but you don't want to move."

Even if neither of them ever contemplated braving the Darien Gap, Valeri and Blanco were always cognizant of a world beyond their hometown. Thanks to their profession, each was afforded the freedom of movement that is rare among their families and friends.

Blanco was the first to leave Argentina on a full-time basis -- for Ukraine, of all places. He'd been open to a transfer to Europe for a while, but none ever came through before Metalist Kharkiv made Lanus an offer it couldn't refuse in early 2011. Although he was ambivalent about the move at first -- and although Metalist would dissolve in 2016 in the midst of wider Ukrainian unrest -- Blanco ended up loving it.

"The experience was amazing," Blanco said. "I really didn't want to go to Ukraine, but it was actually OK. I think I lived better there than in England [at West Bromwich Albion]. You never know. You just have to [embrace] the experience. ... I think if I lived in Ukraine, I can live in any country."

Part of what made his experience in Kharkiv so palatable perhaps was the surprisingly sizable South American contingent. Stocked with Argentinians and Brazilians, the Metalist locker room felt a bit like a home away from home.

Portland, too, has targeted South America ever since joining MLS in 2011. As with much about these Timbers, the Latin vibe around this group starts with Valeri, who arrived in January 2013 and has been the best player in club history by just about any measure.

Valeri's journey to Portland was more traumatic than Blanco's. A Lanus standout for more than a decade, interrupted by a pair of brief European loan spells, he was compelled to leave his boyhood club for good only after getting carjacked with his wife and young daughter in late 2012.

The Valeris have found safe harbor in Portland, and Diego has returned the favor many times over.

The 2015 MLS Cup MVP and last year's league Most Valuable Player, Valeri is highly involved in the Portland community. He and his daughter, Connie, are fixtures at Thorns NWSL games. And as MLS increasingly turns its collective attention southward for talent, Valeri has become something of an evangelist for the league, happy to chat about its perks with any fellow South American wary about stepping down in quality in exchange for greater security.

As soon as he heard the possibility of his old friend Blanco coming to Portland, Valeri was adamant that it would be mutually beneficial. It took a little longer than one might have thought for the former teammates to jell -- it'd been almost a decade, after all -- but they're clicking now.

First-year Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese tinkered with formations and personnel before settling on what has proved to be a winning formula: a conservative 4-2-3-1 that yokes most of the attacking burden to a handful of gifted creators. This strategy works only if that handful are exceptionally gifted; luckily for Savarese, both Valeri and Blanco qualify. Portland's playoff strategy has essentially been to sit deep and let the Lanus boys make magic. And so far, they have.

Valeri scored both goals in the 2-1 knockout-round victory at Dallas. Beside perhaps Seattle's Raul Ruidiaz, nobody had as much of an impact as Blanco did throughout the instant-classic conference semifinal series between the Northwest rivals. In the second leg alone, Blanco scored the go-ahead goal, committed the gaffe that allowed Seattle to tie the series, was whistled for a handball that led to another Sounders goal and then staked Portland to its commanding 3-1 lead in the penalty shootout.

Valeri and Blanco will need to be at their best if Portland is to overcome top-seeded Sporting Kansas City and advance to the MLS Cup. They seemed undaunted by the challenge and, as with their circumstances in general, sort of pleasantly bemused to have found themselves where they are.

"Actually, you always do imagine yourself moving on," Valeri said, further clarifying what he said earlier.

Especially in your late teens and early 20s, you can picture yourself going on to accomplish great things and live in exotic locales. What's unique about his and Blanco's situation is that you don't often visualize moving on side by side with one of your peers, or breaking off and then ending up back together later on down the line.

"It doesn't happen a lot that two guys who grew up in the same hometown club would grow up and somehow end up at the same club in the future," Valeri said.

Valeri imagined life beyond Lanus; he never would have figured that a piece of his existence way back when would end up following him on his journey.

"After 10 years," Blanco said, in something close to hushed awe. "It's crazy. But sometimes, with soccer, you never know.

"I love that soccer has surprised me."