“He’s grown in leadership with the team.” | Diego Gutierrez

It’s not any one thing specifically that has led to this, but Diego Gutiérrez can feel it. And so, too, can Valour FC GM and head coach Phillip Dos Santos.

Valour’s veteran midfielder is smiling more these days and there is already ample evidence of confidence and calmness in his game that speaks volumes to his comfort level with the club.

Now, while those two factors – comfort and confidence — are virtually impossible factors to measure, they can be massive in a player’s overall happiness and, by extension, his level of play.

And make no mistake Gutiérrez is all smiles as Valour nears the end of its second week of preseason.

“We’ve got some new young guys and some experienced guys, too,” he told after training. “It’s the group we need for right now.”

Gutiérrez was first introduced to Valour fans in 2019, the club and the Canadian Premier League’s inaugural season. The Chilean/Canadian has since suited up for 54 matches with the club – he spent the 2021 season with Barnechea, in Chile before returning last year – and continues to flash his skills as a consistent and dependable midfielder, but now also as an emerging leader in the Valour clubhouse.

That is evidenced by many things, including his vastly improved grasp of English since his arrival.

“Every year I get more experience in the CPL and I feel like I’m now one of the more experienced guys with Valour,” he said. “Last year I played with a lot more confidence. Now I know more about the league. There’s so much I’ve learned, like when you go to Halifax, you know they have a lot of fans and they’re going to be on you. These are the things I can tell some of the younger guys.”

Those words will be golden for Dos Santos, who has known the Gutiérrez family for years, including Diego’s twin brother Christián, who plays for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

“The two are very similar,” Dos Santos said. “One is maybe in the MLS because he is left-footed and that is more rare. Guti has matured and he’s one of the best midfielders when we’re talking about quality and keeping a team on the ball and in opening up spaces either with a pass or even with how he opens up the game with his first touch.”

Valour has undergone an extensive makeover since last season when the club finished fifth, and just outside the CPL playoff line, for a second straight year. Gutiérrez is one of the key returnees as Dos Santos & Co. look to link the past to the future with a blend of experience – CPL experience – and youth. His 54 CPL matches played with Valour ranks him first among the current group, one more than Raphael Ohin, who returns after missing all of 2022 with a knee injury.

“Guti was my first signing here when I arrived. He was the first guy I said, ‘I want to bring this guy back to this club,’” said Dos Santos. “We’re excited to see where he progresses from here. He needs to take a little bit more of a leadership role now inside this team.

“He’s grown already in the first 10 days (of preseason) because of the way we’re using him. He has quality. He’s grown in confidence. He’s grown in leadership with the team. Guti is Guti. He’s one of the players when you look at his position as a Canadian domestic, any team in the CPL would like to have.”

Gutiérrez knew very little about the place he now calls his soccer home when he signed in 2019. But this place, as many of us know, can grow on you — so much so that Gutiérrez is now OK with the frigid winters.

“I knew a little bit about Winnipeg when I first got here,” he said. “I know one guy from Chile, Carlos Hidalgo, and I spoke with him a couple of years before I even came. He told me it was a small city, but it is a nice city. And, for me, I actually like the cold. I spent almost my whole life in Chile and the heat can be too much.

“I’m very happy here. I have had other opportunities to go to other teams. The coach here has given me confidence and that can be more important than more money. To me, that’s worth a lot.”