SEATTLE — Nelson Valdez dropped to his knees, closed his eyes and pointed his fingers to the sky.
There was a brief second where it looked as if jubilant tears had joined the rain dripping down his face near the halfway line at CenturyLink Field. His head sunk as he knelt there motionless, too wrought with emotion to do anything else.
Teammates rushed in his direction and swallowed him up while he remained on the ground. If the moment felt surreal, it’s because it was.
Just minutes earlier, Valdez had headed home the game-winner in the Sounders’ 1-0 Western Conference Knockout Round win over Sporting Kansas City. He went goalless all year in Major League Soccer regular-season play.
A goal post here, an untimely deflection there. And with every miss and another blown opportunity came greater consternation of when he would finally find a break through.
“I’ve been feeling like I’ve had a big mountain on top of me for the whole season and finally with the goal that mountain has gone away and the pressure has been relieved,” Valdez said through a translator. “I’m so thankful for the coaching staff. They know I’m going to be available to help at any moment in the game and in many positions. My teammates have been supporting me all along.”
Despite his struggles in 2016, Valdez has a predilection for scoring when it counts. His last MLS goal came last year against the LA Galaxy in the very same Knockout Round the Sounders won on Thursday.
The team needed his heroics, and he delivered. Even if it took longer than anticipated.
“I can’t think of a better person to be rewarded for this moment because he has worked so hard all year long,” said interim head coach Brian Schmetzer. “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.”
Valdez is a fascinating conundrum and means more to this club than his sheer numbers can conclude. He makes young players like Jordan Morris feel more comfortable up front. Morris loves playing with Valdez because he makes it easier on Morris to play off him in space and allows the rookie to learn by example.
“He’s just a great example of a professional soccer player,” Morris said. “He deserves that goal more than anyone.”
Valdez draws attention from defenders, especially in the air, to create more room for Roman Torres and Chad Marshall to operate on set pieces. He plays with his back to goal effectively and allows Nicolas Lodeiro to work in channels he creates. He’s a vital part of the Sounders’ offensive DNA and his fingerprints have been on much of their offensive output.
But that elusive goal still wouldn’t come.
“Many times,” Valdez said when asked if he had experienced low points this season. “At some point I thought there was something going on against me.”
After Valdez scored, he sprinted to celebrate with his teammates along the goal line. He let out several primal and cathartic screams, exorcising goalscoring demons in real time. He said he didn’t have proper words to describe his feelings after the goal, and maybe it’s better there weren’t any. To try and articulate that emotion would have only detracted from the theater.
That Valdez struggled to find the back of the net during the regular season will be a forgotten footnote when the Sounders’ year eventually ends. All those close misses, the bygone half-chances that were parried away, will silently dissolve in the shadow of his goal against Kansas City.
Schmetzer mentioned he’s well aware of the criticism Valdez has dealt with and the subsequent objection Schmetzer has faced for his insistence on continuing to play him.
But the players respect Valdez. The coaching staff respects Valdez. And the entire team was ecstatic for him to come through in the way that he did.
“He’s a winner,” Said Schmetzer. “I would argue that he scored, up until this moment, the biggest goal of our season.”