SEATTLE – Seattle Sounders forward Nelson Valdez didn’t score a single goal in MLS play all year, a drought that stretched across 24 regular season appearances and 900 minutes.
He watched chance after chance narrowly miss and fall by the wayside, resulting in a season’s worth of questions surrounding his Designated Player status, and his role on the team in general, from fans and pundits alike.
But the Paraguayan national finally has his redemption, as he scored the game-winning goal on an 88th minute header to send the Sounders to a 1-0 victory over SKC at CenturyLink Field on Thursday, sending his club to the Western Conference semifinals.
“I can’t explain my feelings,” Valdez told reporters after the game. “It’s unbelievable. … Everybody who knows me, they know how hard it was for me this year. I try every day to do my best and to believe. I’m so happy for the goal. I’m so happy for the team. We get to go another round.”
As happy as he was to find his first MLS goal of the season, Valdez’s teammates might have been happier.
After the game, Sounders rookie forward Jordan Morris was notably effusive in his praise of Valdez’s mental fortitude throughout the most trying season of his career.
“He’s done unbelievable,” Morris said. “He comes in every single day, positive, works hard, just such a great example of a professional. He’s a great leader. Obviously [the goal-scoring drought] can weigh on you and he didn’t let it. He works so hard and he’s earned that goal more than anyone. When I saw it went in and I saw it was him, I was so happy for him.”
Sounders interim head coach Brian Schmetzer was similarly laudatory, calling Thursday’s dramatic tally from Valdez “the biggest goal of our season.”
“He has character, a never-say-die attitude, he’s a winner, he’s played in World Cups,” Schmetzer said. “The players respect him, the coaching staff respects him. I could go on. He’s just a really, really good human being.”
The Sounders entered the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs with a shorthanded attack, with star forward Clint Dempsey out with a heart issue and Andreas Ivanschitz nursing a sprained knee.
Now, as they get ready for their Western Conference semifinal bout with FC Dallas starting on Sunday, Valdez might have found his offensive touch as precisely the right time.