COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Throughout their up-and-down roller coaster of a 2016 MLS season, perhaps no player on the Seattle Sounders’ roster was on the receiving end of more criticism than forward Nelson Valdez.
The Paraguayan national was an easy scapegoat. After signing with the Sounders midway through last season, Valdez didn’t score any goals and tallied just one assist over the course of 900 regular-season minutes, leading to a multitude of questions surrounding his reportedly hefty Designated Player contract.
The Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs, however, couldn’t be a more different story. Valdez has exploded to life at the most crucial of times for the Sounders, scoring the game-winning goal in Seattle’s 1-0 Knockout Round victory over Sporting Kansas City and adding another in their 3-0 Conference Semifinal first-leg romp over FC Dallas.
He kept his one-man redemption tour rolling in the second leg of Seattle’s Western Conference Championship match against the Colorado Rapids on Sunday. Despite being hampered by injury, Valdez assisted on rookie forward Jordan Morris’ 56th-minute game-winning tally to see the Sounders through to their first-ever MLS Cup final.
“He’s a massive part of our team,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said after the game. “You saw him. His groin was sore, he was holding it throughout the second half and he was able to power through that.”
Even throughout his regular-season struggles, Schmetzer and Valdez’s teammates made a point of lauding his work ethic in training and his presence in the locker room.
With that work now finally paying dividends on the stat sheet, Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said that his veteran teammate’s well-timed resurgence is even more gratifying to watch.
“If you look at Nelson, what he’s done, it’s been a difficult season for him,” Frei said. “But one thing he never stopped doing is working hard and trying to, if not score goals, be an inspiration to his teammates, which he always is, because he works his butt off.”
Frei also made a point that Schmetzer argued long before Valdez’s postseason breakout: That Valdez possesses a skillset as a forward that expands beyond scoring goals or notching assists – and one that they just might need to rely on for one more game as they prepare for MLS Cup on Dec. 10.
“[On Sunday], he was challenging for the ball, winning a lot of them or at least making it difficult for them to win it cleanly so they would give up those second balls,” Frei said. “I think that’s a big part of his game. He just works his butt off and it’s contagious for the rest of the team. We love seeing teammates put it all out there, put his body on the line.”