Nelson Valdez picked quite a time to score his first MLS goal of 2016. The much-criticized forward scored a glancing header off a Joevin Jones cross in the 88th minute to lift the Seattle Sounders to a 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City in the MLS Playoffs Knockout Round on Thursday.
Sporting KC will undoubtedly feel a bit hard done. Not only did replays show that Valdez was probably offside on the winning goal, but they also will surely feel that Osvaldo Alonso should have been sent off after a studs up tackle on Benny Feilhaber. Although Alonso won the ball — and no foul was even called — he did come through Feilhaber to get it and had studs showing, a nearly identical tackle that got Oniel Fisher sent off against KC in the season’s first game.
Of course, all of that won’t much matter to the Sounders now, who have never failed to get to at least the conference semifinals. They’ll host FC Dallas on Sunday in the first of two legs.
Both the Sounders and Sporting KC entered this knockout round match with the same starting lineups that produced wins for them on Decision Day. The Sounders had few options, though captain Brad Evans did start on the bench with perhaps an eye for the possibility of extra time.
Despite the home field advantage, the Sounders started rather slowly and sloppily. Sporting was able to get a few big chances early on, but Stefan Frei was equal to all of them. One early sequence saw Frei make a save off a Paulo Nagamura shot. Nagamur got the rebound and touched it to Graham Zusi in the box Graham Zusi in the box, whose shot beat Frei but hit the outside of the goal post.
The Sounders’ first dangerous attack led to their first corner just after 20 minutes. This was the start of a solid chunk of Sounders possession and attack, but they just couldn’t find the final ball. A free kick for Kansas City following a questionable yellow card foul to Alonso forced Frei into yet another big save and a corner that the away side failed to convert. A handful of middling chances came and went for both sides, with Roman Torres closing out the half with a decent header off a free kick that went just wide of the post.
The second half started fairly evenly for both sides, but Sporting KC had the first dangerous chance, and almost converted it to break the deadlock. Matt Besler headed a swinging free kick into the net, but the assistant ref waved him offside.
Seattle’s first dangerous chance came after Nico Lodeiro earned a free kick near the goal line, but Torres’ flying kick went over the bar. This led to a solid series of chances for Seattle in which they came very close, but the final ball continued to elude them.
Shortly after Alonso’s tackle, Feilhaber nearly got his revenge. In the 80th minute, Feilhaber skated past several Sounders defenders and firing off a close-range shot that Frei was able to save.
That set the stage for Valdez’s heroics.
It was Valdez’s first goal in MLS competition in almost exactly one year (one day shy, to be exact). That’s when he scored against the LA Galaxy in the Knockout Round. This one was undeniably bigger, as it ended a long bout of frustrating play where he’s been unable to find the back of the net.
After scoring, Valdez rushed to the corner flag where he was mobbed by teammates, who obviously shared in his joy beyond just scoring a late winner.