Valdez's stellar postseason continued in Colorado, where he earned the assist on the goal that sent Seattle to MLS Cup.
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — By summer, that this season would be Nelson Valdez’s last as a Sounder was something of a foregone conclusion.
Valdez’s contract is up at the end of 2016. And no matter how many intangibles the Paraguayan veteran contributes, not even the biggest of MLS spenders can justify dropping more than $1 million per year on a forward who struggles to score.
Discouraged but defiant, Valdez said in June that his central remaining motivation was to end his Seattle tenure on the right note — and to show Sounders fans who he really was before he left.
Suffice it to say he has accomplished that mission.
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Valdez earned an assist on Jordan Morris’ game-winning goal on Sunday at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. That flashpoint was just one part of the impact the Paraguayan had on Seattle’s 1-0 win in the second leg of the Western Conference finals against the Rapids, a victory that clinched the club’s first MLS Cup berth.
Playing with a sore groin, Valdez functioned as the Sounders’ battering ram. Going toe-to-toe with the towering center backs that buttressed Colorado’s league-best defense, Valdez leapt high to win headers and stretched every sinew for loose balls.
“He’s challenging for every ball and winning a lot of them — or at least making it difficult for them to win it cleanly so we can pick up second balls,” Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “He just works his butt off. It’s contagious for the rest of my teammates because you love seeing a teammate putting it all out there and putting his body on the line … in order to get success.”
Valdez made 24 appearances without a single league goal during the regular season. (One of the indelible images of this playoff run was the look on Valdez’s face, as shocked as anybody that the goal that bested Kansas City in the knockout round actually went in.) But even in the midst of his slump, his hustle and commitment didn’t waver.
“It’s been a difficult season for him but one thing he never stopped doing was working hard,” Frei said. “If he’s not scoring goals, be an inspiration to his teammates, which he always is.”
Valdez has now tallied three goals and that huge assist in eight career MLS playoff games. He’s still unlikely to be wearing rave green next season, not without agreeing to a significant pay cut, but that’s a concern for an offseason that’s been pushed back for another two weeks.
Valdez’s continued playoff magic is a case for living in the moment of this unlikely MLS Cup run and worrying about long-term concerns later.
Some other miscellaneous Sounders-Rapids observations upon second viewing and with the benefit of 12 hours’ hindsight:
– Cristian Roldan again came up big in defensive midfield. That’s become something of a broken record during Seattle’s MLS Cup run, not that coach Brian Schmetzer seems to mind.
“I love talking about that kid,” Schmetzer said. “In the first half we didn’t play our best soccer and again it was credit to Colorado. Cristian was that one kid who was always able to find that extra gear.
“He was able to track guys down, and was able to do some of the defensive work as well as collect a few balls and dribble into their half of the field. That pairing of (Ozzie Alonso) and Cristian has been dynamite for us.”
– I still can’t entirely believe that Jordan Morris pulled that off. It’s hard to overstate just how out of sorts the rookie looked in the first half of Sunday’s game. The combination of a lingering stomach bug and Colorado’s mile-high altitude sapped him of energy. Midway through that frame, Morris so mistimed his run onto one of Nicolas Lodeiro’s trademark passes that I figured it was much more likely that he’d get subbed up at halftime than make a positive impact on the game.
Morris’ ability to not only soldier through to the final whistle but score the goal that decided the series – that finish was top-quality, too – deserves to go down as one of the signature performances in recent Sounders history.
– “It was a flip of a coin,” Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni said afterward of the result, and that might even be a bit harsh on his own team. Colorado did more than enough to net the go-ahead goal that would have given it control of the series — it just couldn’t finish.
It’s hard to say he’d have done much differently, Mastroeni opined, given that the first-half game plan was so effective in so many ways. Such is life in the playoffs, where series often to come down to which side is more opportunistic.
Mastroeni also offered a powerful explanation of the emotions that follow postseason elimination, especially one so close to the ultimate goal. Consider it the equal and opposite reaction that makes what the Sounders felt.
“Obviously, there’s a grieving period,” Mastroeni said. “You lose the game, but what people don’t realize is the amount of work, the sleepless nights, the arguments with your players, with your staff, with your family. You sacrifice a lot. The emotion that goes into that sacrifice, the pain of it, that’s what you feel down about. It vanishes into thin air. That’s it. It’s a lot like life. At the end, it’s about what you leave behind.”