To say the Seattle Sounders have a somewhat spotty record when it comes to Designated Player signings is probably fair. For every Obafemi Martins, there’s been a Christian Tiffert. For every Fredy Montero, a Shalrie Joseph.
By any reasonable metric, Nelson Valdez probably belongs in the “flop” bin. In a little over a season’s worth of matches, the Paraguayan has only scored a handful of goals, and that’s including all competitions.
Coming into Thursday’s game, Valdez hadn’t scored in a MLS match in nearly a year. His lack of scoring had become a rather consistent talking point, but at every opportunity head coach Brian Schmetzer had sung his veteran forward’s praises. Valdez was a consummate teammate, a tireless worker and someone who could affect games even if he wasn’t putting the ball in the net, Schmetzer would say.
That’s why Schmetzer kept using Valdez late in games. That’s why Schmetzer continued to have faith that it was only a matter of time before Valdez would score. That’s why, with the Sounders needing a goal to keep their improbable season going, it somehow made sense that it was Valdez scoring a diving header in the 88th minute.
The ensuing celebration was the kind of thing you’d expect from a player carrying the baggage of such a long scoring drought. After high-fiving fans as he ran along the ad boards behind the goal and embracing his teammates, Valdez basically collapsed. As he was running back to the center circle, he appeared to be wiping away tears. It was an emotional display completely fitting the moment.
Valdez’s teammates knew how important this was to him, and in the postgame locker room couldn’t heap enough praise on one of the most popular players on the squad. They knew no one deserved this goal more than Valdez. They knew no one needed it more than him.
Who knows how history will treat Valdez. Maybe he ends up leading them to a MLS Cup. Maybe this is the last goal he ever scores as a Sounder. Either way, Valdez deserved to be remembered for something more than a long scoring drought. Now, he’ll always have this moment. We’ll always have this moment. It only seems fitting.
#ThisMoment was one of our favorites from last night! #SEAvSKC pic.twitter.com/VIGHq0ABwm— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) October 28, 2016
Stefan Frei comes up big, again: This was not the Sounders’ best defensive effort, not by a long shot. As disjointed as the attack looked at times, the backline was just as bad if not worse. Roman Torres was guilty of several giveaways and Tyrone Mears had his worst game in at least a month.
But Sporting KC didn’t score and that’s due mostly to the goalkeeping of Frei, who made a season-high tying seven saves. Most of those weren’t easy, either. Frei made a couple wonderful stops on Paulo Nagamura blasts, parried away a nasty deflection from a free kick, stopped a well-struck shot from Seth Sinovic and, most impressively, managed to stone Benny Feilhaber from close range after the midfielder skated through several defenders.
Frei isn’t going to win Goalkeeper of the Year and probably won’t even be a finalist, again, but this is just another example of how important he’s been to the Sounders. It’s impossible to imagine being in this position without his contributions.
In appreciation of consistency: While the Sounders’ lack of a MLS Cup final appearance is a constant source of discussion, it should also be acknowledged that this is now the eighth straight season in which they’ve advanced to at least the conference semifinals. That’s the longest active streak by any team in MLS. Aside from the New York Red Bulls who have been this far seven straight years, FC Dallas is the only other team with a conference-final streak of at least three years and the Montreal Impact are the only other team with an active streak of two years.
As frustrating as it is that the Sounders have only advanced beyond this round twice before, the consistency they’ve shown in getting this far is mighty impressive.
Coming back to earth: As great and emotional of a victory as that was, it’s important to also acknowledge the Sounders did not play great on offense or defense. I don’t think Sporting KC “dominated” anywhere to the degree Peter Vermes suggested — and it’s worth noting the Sounders had the xG advantage 1.61-.62 — but they were probably the better team on the whole. KC came in with a solid game plan, to press the Sounders and force them into mistakes. That worked to a certain degree, but the Sounders also had a lot of unforced errors.
If they are going to really make a run at MLS Cup, they have to play better. But the good news is they have that opportunity, something four more teams no longer have.