The forward, who hadn’t scored in MLS play since last year’s playoffs, got a goal in the 88th minute to lift Seattle to a 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City and into the Western Conference semifinals against FC Dallas.
The issue with some highly compensated foreign stars in Major League Soccer is that, sometimes, they hardly seem bothered one way or the other, win or loss.
Nelson Valdez’s problem has been that he cares so damn much.
The frustration of the prolonged goal drought of the veteran Sounders forward, dating back almost exactly a year as of early Thursday evening, has been etched into his face. The Paraguayan has never been able to hide the emotions stitched permanently on his sleeve.
vs. FC Dallas, 6:30 p.m., FS1
And so he did not hold back at the final whistle of Thursday’s one-game Western Conference playoff between Seattle and Kansas City. Valdez dropped to his knees, where he was quickly surrounded by a host of teammates, tears streaming freely down his cheeks.
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Nelson Valdez, of all people, scored the goal that fired the Sounders into the conference semifinals, a near-post header that vanquished a game Sporting KC team by a 1-0 margin on Thursday night at CenturyLink.
Seattle will host top-seeded FC Dallas in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals – the third straight postseason the clubs will meet in that very round — on Sunday at 6:30 p.m.
Even half an hour or so later, after the final whistle of Thursday’s match, Valdez’s eyes still red-rimmed and watery, the relief was palpable.
“I’ve been feeling like there’s been a big mountain on top of me all season,” Valdez said through a translator. “Finally, with the goal, that mountain went away and the pressure has been relieved.”
The goal settled a hard-fought, evenly split, mean-spirited playoff match.
Its long wait had been agonizing. Valdez entered the season as the Sounders’ second-highest-paid player, after Clint Dempsey, making more than $1.4 million. That’s a healthy chunk of change for a rate of two goals in 34 MLS games entering Thursday.
Criticizing his lack of production is certainly fair game. But Valdez has often felt like an easy target for mounting frustrations at what felt a couple of months ago like a lost season.
“I know there have been people out there who have said things, and we get it. We’re all pros,” interim coach Brian Schmetzer said. “We understand the business that we’re in. But for him to come through in such a critical moment is well deserved. He carried the team on his back here, and I’m so happy for Nelson Valdez.”
His teammates say Valdez dealt with his scoring slump about as well as anybody in his position ever could.
“He’s just such a great example of a professional soccer player,” rookie forward Jordan Morris said. “That stuff can weigh on you, and he didn’t let it. He deserved that goal more than anyone. When I saw it was him and saw it go in, I was so happy for him.”
There has almost been a dark comedy to the force field protecting opposing goals from each and every Valdez strike. There was one low point, at Orlando back in August, when he was alone in front of goal with the ‘keeper out of position. It seemed almost physically harder not to score. Valdez shot sideways off the left post.
He has felt snake-bit, cursed by the soccer gods.
“Everybody who knows me, they know how hard for me this year was,” Valdez said. “I tried every day to make the best of it. At some points, I thought there was something going on against me. … There’s no Paraguayan who ever gives up. Thanks to my teammates, I was able to overcome that and be where I’m at right now.”
Valdez has overcome far greater adversity. This is the player who lived under the bleachers, essentially homeless, throughout his first few years as a pro in his native Paraguay. Valdez won a roster spot via a sink-or-swim tryout with Werder Bremen a few years later, heading to Germany with only a plane ticket in his hand and no money to his name.
He’s delivered, spectacularly, on wide range of big stages. He’s scored – twice — in the Camp Nou against FC Barcelona, netted the goal that clinched Paraguay’s spot in the 2010 World Cup.
And yet all those prior plaudits did little to soothe the wounded pride of his prolonged Seattle struggles.
“I want to do well in Seattle and show the people why I’m here and who I am,” Valdez said back in June, countless scoreless outings ago. “I ask God that I don’t get injured anymore and try to finish right here.”
Late Thursday night, after a wait that often felt like it’d never end and on the business end of a Joevin Jones cross, Valdez finally added a signature Sounders moment to his epic career.