Age at MLS Cup: 22
Hometown: Rosario, Argentina
2020 IN ALL COMPETITIONS
After missing the entire 2019 season due to ACL surgery, the Crew’s young left back rebounded spectacularly in 2020. Like 2008 left back Gino Padula and I joked in December, the common ingredients for a Crew MLS Cup champion are an Argentine playmaker and left back. In 2008, it was Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Padula. In 2020, it was Lucas Zelarayan and Valenzuela. Calm and dependable despite his young age, Valenzuela is Josh Williams’ favorite player. I will let Josh explain why.
THROUGH JOSH’S EYES
“Milton is easily my favorite player on the team. I tell him this almost every day. I let everybody know it too. Whenever he walks in the room, I say, ‘There’s my favorite player.’
“In my mind, because we got him at such a young age, he’s still this little boy. He’s like a wonder-boy with an insane amount of talent. I don’t know why, but to me, it’s still like he’s 16. Like a 16-year-old young professional. I don’t know why that is, but that’s how I picture it. But he’s someone I never have to worry about. He’s as dependable as they come. I feel like we almost take him for granted because he’s so good at left back. Guys I play against, he’s always someone that gets mentioned across the league. They’ll say, ‘That guy’s a baller’ or ask ‘How old is he?’ or ‘What’s his contract length? Do you guys have him locked up for a while?’ We almost take him for granted because he dependably plays at such a high level. He’s never going to do anything to hurt you. Any time there’s a cross in the box and we’re getting back, it’s always right information that I’m getting over my shoulder. I think that’s so crucial. Like Hector, it’s constant communication. To have somebody who does that makes your job easier because what you’re looking at is the only thing you can process, so to have a reliable voice behind you allows you to process things in your periphery or behind you. It makes you job so much easier, and he is so good at that. And I never have to worry about his position. I always tell him to go forward and attack. I tell him I’ve got his back just like he has mine.
“He’s always nipping at people’s heels. He’s incredible at just frustrating people. He never shies out of a tackle. And then on the offensive side, he can mix it up and his service is getting better and better each year. He’s always looking to combine with Lucas and Pedro. He’s another guy that shows up every day and is an incredible professional.
“He’s usually drinking his mate tea with Lucas. The kid loves mate. I tell him he’s addicted. I tell him we’re going to have an intervention soon because he’s an addict. I see his consumption. It’s at a high level. But whatever he’s doing, it’s working.
“Milton is always happy. A story that sticks out is I remember a day at training where I think Caleb was testing him a little bit, or challenging him. It was one of those days where the whole team was off a bit and Caleb happened to say something to Milton. As a coach, you’re constantly challenging guys. Every player goes through that. If you’re not challenging guys, then the team isn’t getting better. You can’t let anybody get too comfortable. I forget the exact context of what happened, but Caleb was testing him and he was like, ‘Yeah, okay.’ It was a straight answer with no lip back or anything like that. He was absolutely unbothered by it. It was like he knew what was happening and that it was just a challenge and he was going to meet it. I think that’s awesome to see out of a young kid like that. I went over to Milton afterward and told him he was fine and we need these challenging days and it was the whole team and don’t worry about it. He just looked at me with a straight face and said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ It kind of caught me off guard. Then it was like, ‘Well, I never need to have that conversation again. We don’t ever need to worry about him.’
“He’s got this awesome quiet confidence about him. He’s so sure about himself and what he does. And that comes out in his play. There are so many guys, and I had to learn this at a young age, where when you mess up, you can’t let one mistake compound into another mistake which compounds into another mistake. You have to be able to clear your head and have a short memory. As a defender, that’s hard to do, especially as an outside back. I’ve played outside back and you’re constantly getting balls. And if a team is pressing you the right way, you’re in some weird positions. As a centerback, I try not to put him in those weird positions, but occasionally I do, but he always finds a way out and he never complains.
“There was a play in MLS Cup where I thought Ruidiaz killed him. There was a play where they bashed heads. The ball goes up in the air and I can see it happening where neither one of them is going to pull out. Ruidiaz is an absolute dog who is going to stick his head in the box. That’s how he scores so many goals. And Milton is another absolute dog, so I knew neither of them would back out. It’s one of those plays where you see it happening and you’re like, ‘Noooooo…I know you have to do it, but noooooo…’ Milton won it but Ruizdiaz’s shoulder went right into Milton’s face and Milton goes down. I remember thinking, ‘God, that was a huge hit.’ I remember expecting him to bounce back up, but knew if he didn’t bounce back up it was probably because he was concussed. I totally would have been like, ‘Yeah, I can see how.’ He stayed down for a little bit and Ruidiaz came over, and as a teammate, if a guy gets hit in the head, you want to protect him. You automatically have some aggression toward the guy who just did that. But Milton’s reaction, which was in Spanish so I didn’t understand the exact words, but you could tell it was just like, ‘Yeah, we’re cool. I understand.’ Then he shook his hand and popped back up and finished the rest of the game. It’s moments like that that show you he’s such a competitor and is tough as nails. He’s always going to give you his all and is someone you never have to worry about. You know what you’re gonna get, and it’s everything you could ever want out of a teammate playing next to you.”
[NOTE: To see a clickable list of earlier installments of this Josh Williams series or other MLS Cup related posts, please click HERE.]
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