Nelson Valdez's controversial winner sends Sounders by Sporting KC in MLS playoffs

After having a goal of its own disallowed on a tight offside call, Sporting Kansas City will be livid with the manner in which its season came to an end.
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The Seattle Sounders’ magical late-season surge continued on Thursday night, as a late goal from Nelson Valdez led the team to an emotional 1–0 win over Sporting Kansas City in the knockout round of the MLS playoffs. 

Valdez’s goal came after 88 minutes of physical and at times emotional soccer, with both teams alternating long stretches of dominance with periods of shaky play. Kansas City had the better of Seattle through most of the game, controlling possession, stopping Sounders attacks, and generating dangerous opportunities. In the first half alone, midfielder Paulo Nagamura had two good chances saved by Stefan Frei and Graham Zusi hit the post. 

However, that hit off the post was a mere footnote in a game that had plenty of drama to follow. Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso was at the center of much of it, earning a yellow card for a harsh tackle on Roger Espinoza, then drawing the ire of SKC midfielder Benny Feilhaber for another hard challenge in the second half. Then there was a disallowed goal from Matt Besler, followed by an eerily similar chance that Valdez buried to put Seattle through. 

The result is SKC's third straight heartbreaking loss in the knockout round after winning MLS Cup in 2013, having lost in 2014 on a 90th-minute goal against the New York Red Bulls, and in 2015 in a historically-epic penalty shootout against Portland Timbers

Seattle will face a formidable but familiar foe in the next round, as Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup winners FC Dallas awaits in the conference semifinals. Seattle and Dallas have met at the same stage of the playoffs in the last two seasons, with FC Dallas advancing on penalties in 2015 and Seattle going through on the away-goal tiebreaker in 2014. 

For now, though, here are three thoughts on a wild night at CenturyLink Field: 

A tale of two offsides

Besler thought he had the opening goal for Kansas City in the 52nd minute, heading home a well-placed free kick from Feilhaber and wheeling off in celebration. Not so fast. The assistant referee waved his flag, indicating that Besler was offside when the ball was played. 

As regulation time drew to a close, Valdez made CenturyLink Field explode with his first goal of the season, and his first in nearly a full calendar year. He scored it by running on to a cross from Joevin Jones during the run of play, leaping in front of Tim Melia to head the ball into the back of the net. 

When complaints about MLS referees get made, one word continually comes up: Consistency. Why? Just look above. Valdez is just as offside (if not more so) than Besler, yet his goal went on to win the game and end Sporting KC’s season. 

The margins are often narrow in playoff games, and it is incumbent upon both teams to win outside the margin of human error that soccer naturally displays. But that doesn’t make this loss any less brutal for SKC, nor should it mask yet another massive mistake in a key moment from the league’s officials.

This was the best game of the MLS playoffs so far 

In past years, the MLS playoffs have proven to be a reliable source of all sorts of drama. However, that drama was notably absent through the first three games in the knockout round, with Toronto brushing aside Philadelphia with ease, the Galaxy outworking Real Salt Lake, and D.C. United simply falling flat at home in a loss to Montreal.

There were no such problems in this game. Kansas City and Seattle each traded strong runs of play, and both showed equal commitment to attack and to strong defense. There were testy moments, including scuffles after Alonso came through with hard challenges on Espinoza (in the first half) and Feilhaber (in the second half).

Feilhaber, for his part, let the emotions get the better of him, exploding at referee Ismail Elfath both in the immediate aftermath of Alonso’s foul and after the final whistle. He also channeled that energy into several fine plays made while the crowd booed his every touch. That includes this mazy run and saved shot, which might have gone down as one of the better goals in MLS playoff history had Stefan Frei not made one of his several big stops on the night: 

On the other end, Valdez looked to be in tears immediately after scoring what would become the game-winning goal. But as intense as things were, the scuffles and emotions never overshadowed the game itself. There was balance and grit. It’s cliché to say that both teams “wanted it” (what playoff team doesn’t?), but…well…both teams wanted it.

Then there was the matter of the atmosphere (Seattle fans were loud and boisterous as always), the rain, and the prime-time TV slot. From appearances alone, this was a game that called out for the viewer to become invested in its proceedings. The play on the field justified those appearances. This year's playoffs hadn’t had enough of that. 

Seattle’s incredible revival continues

The Sounders have experienced more upheaval throughout the season than just about any other team in Major League Soccer. Among the Cup favorites in preseason, the Sounders then lost striker Obafemi Martins to a massive offer from China, then started the year terribly, lost their tenured and well-liked coach Sigi Schmid as a result, then lost striker Clint Dempsey to a heart condition (Dempsey was reportedly slated to be at the stadium for Thursday’s game, according to the FS1 broadcast). 

But instead of folding, Seattle went 5–2–3 in its last 10 games of the regular season, rocketing up the standings to such a degree that it earned the right to host this playoff game (which undoubtedly worked in their favor on multiple fronts).

Not coincidentally, that run coincides with the arrival not only of Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro, but also the return from injury of central defender Roman Torres. Together with Chad Marshall and goalkeeper Stefan Frei, Torres has helped the Sounders become one of MLS’ best defensive units, while Lodeiro has given the team the ingenuity in the final third it lacks without Dempsey or Martins up top. There are still flaws with this roster, but the difficulties of this season have seemed to pull this Sounders team closer together than ever, and it’s showing with the on-field results. FC Dallas will have a challenge on its hands. 

Elsewhere in the MLS playoffs knockout round: