TUKWILA, Wash. – Maybe it was just a matter of time for Nelson Valdez.
After a regular season that saw him go scoreless in MLS play – and even get called out via Twitter by Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya – the Seattle Sounders forward has broken out in resounding fashion in the Audi 2016 MLS Cup playoffs.
He scored the game-winning goal in Seattle’s 1-0 Knockout Round victory over Sporting Kansas City and started a three-goal barrage with the opener in their 3-0 romp over FC Dallas in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals, making an agonizing regular season suddenly and remarkably feel like a distant memory.
“I’ve been feeling like there’s a mountain on top of me all season,” Valdez said through a translator following the victory over SKC. “With that goal, the mountain went away. The pressure has been relieved.”
So, what changed?
The Sounders certainly aren’t questioning it but interim head coach Brian Schmetzer offered up a take on the matter following a Tuesday training session at Starfire Soccer Complex.
“I’m not going to say luck,” Schmetzer said. “I’ll say determination.
“All the good work that he’s done, all the training, I think that’s what’s done it for him. He’s made the most of his opportunities. He scores a goal against Sporting KC and we reward him with a start [against Dallas] and he sparks a seven-minute burst of goals.”
Valdez’s presence as the lone forward atop Seattle’s 4-2-3-1 formation against Dallas also allowed rookie forward Jordan Morris to move to the wing, a change that Morris partially credited with spearheading his own standout first leg performance.
“I love playing with Nelson because it makes it easier on me,” Morris said. “Sometimes when I’m up there by myself it can get tough, especially in scrappy games. [Valdez is] more of a natural, back-to-goal, hold the ball [forward] and that gives me a little more of the ability to find spaces and make runs in behind because he does the job of holding the ball up.”
Morris’ point would seem to echo a sentiment that Schmetzer has long-argued: That there are other, overlooked contributions that Valdez makes to Seattle’s attack – qualities that could prove valuable if the Sounders are to make a deep postseason run.
“His heading in the midfield, on goal kicks, on flick-ons, his hold-up play,” Schmetzer said on Tuesday. “There’s lots of facets to his game that might not be as noticeable as him jumping over a guy and scoring a goal.”
Even so, the recently rediscovered goal-scoring touch remains the most notable aspect of Valdez’s postseason renaissance. And as the Sounders try to close out their semifinal series with FCD at Toyota Stadium on Sunday (9 pm ET; FS1, FOX Deportes, TSN2), it hardly could have come at a better time.