'Warrior' Nelson Valdez rewards Sounders' faith

'Warrior' Nelson Valdez rewards Sounders' faith

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'Warrior' Nelson Valdez rewards Sounders' faith

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Photo by Jennifer Buchanan/USA Today Sports

Photo by Jennifer Buchanan/USA Today Sports

TORONTO — Nelson Haedo Valdez probably said everything you need to know about him the day the Seattle Sounders unveiled him as a new acquisition in August of 2015.

“I’m a natural warrior,” the Paraguayan striker told SBI at the time. “I never give up on a ball. I never give up on a game. I give everything that I have to try to win the game, so that I can live with a clean conscience.”

How much do you pay your life coach?

Valdez scored in his first appearance for the club, a 4-0 win over Orlando City. He delivered a second goal 10 weeks later in a 3-2 knockout-round victory over the LA Galaxy, helping his new club eliminate its deeper-pocketed nemesis for the first time in four playoff meetings. While he wasn’t bagging goals left and right, things were off to a bright enough start. After all, he was signed — along with Erik Friberg, Andreas Ivanschitz, and Roman Torres — as part of a desperate, DEFCON 2 effort to avert the unimaginable possibility of Seattle missing the playoffs. Mission accomplished.

Then 2016 rolled around. As another regular season drew to a close almost a year later, Valdez still hadn’t scored since that LA playoff match.

Most strikers have many jobs. Most fans only care about one of them, and Valdez is far more than your run-of-the-mill MLS forward: he is one of the highest paid players on one of the league’s marquee teams. More importantly, he occupies one of that marquee team’s priceless designated player slots. It’s a role that inherently begets expectations. Yet under Sigi Schmid — Seattle’s head coach until parting ways with the club in late July — Valdez sometimes failed to make the 18, let alone the starting lineup.

The comment threads were unpleasant in the spring, NSFW by autumn. The misses were hard to fathom. It was never for lack of effort, or an inability to create chances. It was a dashing leading man fumbling at the threshold like an awkward teenager. Over and over and over.

“We just had never seen a player as snake-bitten as he was for awhile there,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said on Friday.

Over the course of the summer, it was tempting to dismiss the Sounders when they consistently applauded a designated player who didn’t seem to be doing designated player things. He was the million-dollar goal scorer who could not score. He was the richly pedigreed striker — veteran of World Cups, Werder Bremen, Borussia Dortmund, and Valencia — who failed to find the back of the net in 900 minutes spread across 24 appearances.

Yet his teammates, his coaches, and the general manager who brought him to Seattle sang nothing but his praises. They gushed about his leadership, his defensive work rate, his passing, his ability to hold the ball and draw defenders. It was easy to assume they all aced a Crash Davis course in saying the right things.

But Valdez has more than rewarded that trust in the playoffs, powering a game-winning header past Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia to push the Sounders out of the knockout round and into the conference semifinals. (Was he offside? Yes.) After he scored, Valdez slid to the turf on two knees, fists clenched and tears streaming down his face.

Another goal and an assist followed in the next two playoff rounds.

“I said early this year, halfway through the season,” teammate Brad Evans said Friday, “that he was going to score the biggest goal for us this year. And it turns out that it was the Kansas City goal that propelled us into (MLS Cup).”

And then there was Lagerwey, standing on the pitch at Toronto’s BMO Field on Friday afternoon, the Sounders barely a day away from their first MLS Cup appearance, 43 days removed from the goal Valdez scored against Kansas City.

Discussing that goal more than a month later, Lagerwey briefly held back tears of his own, his voice breaking as though watching Valdez slide to the FieldTurf all over again.

“I’ll tell you,” Lagerwey said. “His reaction after he scored his goal against Kansas City in the playoffs was so heartfelt, and so…emotional. You have got to understand that he came in and said, ‘Thank you for standing by me.’ Not to me, but to the locker room, to the guys. And everyone gave him a standing ovation. That’s what our locker room is like. It’s so positive. And was there doubt? Did you have some thought about it? I mean, sure. So did he. But he stuck with it, and he fought through it. His teammates supported him. I think that’s emblematic of what we’ve become, and we’re really proud of that.”

It’s possible Valdez has just 90 minutes left in a Sounders uniform. It’s unlikely he returns in 2017 as a designated player, though perhaps the sides can agree to a smaller contract.

Betting money says he faces Sunday morning with a clean conscience.

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