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Controversial Nelson Valdez winner pushes Sounders past Sporting KC

Photo by Jennifer Buchanan/USA Today Sports
Photo by Jennifer Buchanan/USA Today Sports

SEATTLE — It took 88 minutes of Thursday night’s match, a rough-and-tumble Western Conference knockout-round playoff tilt against Sporting Kansas City. It took some lucky breaks. It took ridiculous saves from goalkeeper Stefan Frei.

It took, in the end, a goal from a much-maligned million-dollar forward, a designated player who had not scored in a calendar year. It took all that and more, but the Seattle Sounders are advancing to the conference semifinals for the eighth time in the club’s eight year history.

Nelson Valdez, who had not scored since the 2015 playoffs, entered late in the match and got on the end of a Joevin Jones cross, powering a header past goalkeeper Tim Melia and sending the 36,151 at CenturyLink Field into delirium. The goal also sent Sporting KC into a fury because Valdez, replays confirmed, was clearly a half-step offside.

Missed call or not, Seattle now hosts top-seeded FC Dallas on Sunday in the first match of the two-legged semifinal. For the second time in two years, Kansas City finds itself eliminated in the knockout round, both times on the road in the Pacific Northwest.

While the Sounders will advance, the outcome was anything but a given and would certainly have been different if Frei hadn’t delivered a sterling performance, or if Matt Besler hadn’t been inches offside on what initially looked like the game’s opening goal.

Besler’s header off a Benny Feilhaber free kick appeared to open the scoring in the 52nd minute, but referee Ismail Elfath ruled the defender offside, a decision that replays appeared to support as a good, if close, call.

After repeatedly coming up big early in the game, Frei delivered two more key saves in the second half. In the 62nd minute he leaped to push a Seth Sinovic shot from distance over the crossbar. Sinovic initially corralled a loose corner before unleashing from the top of the penalty area. In the 80th minute, Feilhaber — a man on fire fueled by boos and a yellow card for dissent — weaved through a series of defenders to earn himself a clean look, but Frei delivered another stellar save.

The match was physical, foul-filled, and contentious throughout. Roger Espinoza and Osvaldo Alonso exchanged bruising tackles in the first half, with Alonso picking up a yellow for his part in the affair. Alonso also nearly picked up a second yellow for a living-on-the-edge tackle on Feilhaber midway through the second half. For his part, Feilhaber was twice given final warnings for persistent infringement before finally earning the card for dissent.

Seattle had the home field advantage, but it was Sporting KC that came out strong and controlled the first half. A team known for bunkering and bullying on the road had the unusually sloppy Sounders on their heels and seemed all but sure to find a first-half lead.

Paulo Nagamura nearly opened the scoring from the top of the penalty area in just the eighth minute, capitalizing on a Roman Torres turnover to force Frei into a diving save. The Brazilian midfielder nearly scored again moments later, latching onto a Feilhaber through ball into the heart of the area only to be denied by Frei once again. Graham Zusi gathered the rebound and slapped a 12-yard shot off the far post.

A pair of Sounders’ corner kicks at the 20th minute slowed down the match, as Nicolas Lodeiro began to impose his will on the action. Seattle’s first chance came on a 25th-minute Lodeiro corner kick, but Chad Marshall’s header deflected off Dom Dwyer for a goal kick. Play evened out over the final 20 minutes of the half, though Frei delivered another quality save in the 32nd minute, this time off a redirected Feilhaber free kick.


Tough not reward Nelson Valdez for the dramatic game-winning goal, but the Sounders would have been in no position to win if not for a performance from Stefan Frei that will be long remembered in Seattle.


What else? A Nelson Valdez goal that was equal parts salvation, celebration, and validation. It will also be a moment Sporting KC and Peter Vermes have nightmares about because of a blown offside call.


The officiating crew, led by referee Ismail Elfath, won’t win any awards for their showing on Thursday night.


  1. Man, that was a fun game.

    I really don’t get the attendance problems at place like DC. Were there less seats filled on a rainy Thursday night, sure, but the difference being there was always going to be a lot of people jazzed to go and enjoy a great game like that.

    Why don’t people in DC and a few other places get this?
    Don’t answer, I don’t want to hear the whining.

    • No marketing whatsoever for the DC match. If you look at the games where there were 25k and 31 k at RFK, its because they were heavily pushed on social media and other outlets, for weeks. Yes, the Thursday night rainy evening and quick turnaround didn’t help. Traffic is an issue here as well, I left work at 5:45 and didnt get to the lot until 7:15….I work about 12 miles from the stadium. When the majority of your fan base comes from VA, you can always bet on lackluster numbers for weekday games. Just my 2 cents.

    • I think a lot of the attendance issues are also down to the outdated nature of the stadium, it’s just not, for me anyways, an enjoyable atmosphere. Traffic is also a problem, as stated by KEEP, and i dont think we’ll see things change until the new stadium is in place.

  2. A tough loss for SKC, especially when you consider that Besler’s goal that was called offsides was closer than Valdez’s goal. Still, it was the best of the knockout games. None of the others were really close and it seemed like in the other games only one of the teams really came to play. Both teams really went after one another in this one and it was a nail biter to the end.

  3. I’ve thought it repeatedly since 2013, I’d take Donovan over Zusi every single day of the week. I’d take a still retired donovan strolling straight out of bed and onto the pitch over Zusi. And after watching each players respective playoff performances, at this moment in time Donovan is still unequivocally a more talented and useful footballer than graham zusi. Zusi was was a step slow at every opportunity. Feilhaber despite his antics stayed ultra cool in his play – simply not good enough in the end, taking his best chance weakly with the outside of his right instead of using his left to shoot across goal. Frei was pretty impressive, could be MOM. Morris inability to use left foot still worries me; he’ll have to compensate by improving other areas of his game DRAMATICALLY.. great physical tools as usual though


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