“It was an unfortunate play.”
That was Milton Valenzuela’s initial description of the scenario that left him sidelined for all of the 2019 season.
The nature of the injury was incidental. A teammate went up for a header and came down with his full weight on Valenzuela’s knee.
A freak accident, of course. But the timing couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time, if there ever was one for career-threatening injuries.
In 2018, the team reached the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five years, with Valenzuela playing an integral role as the team looked to make it five-of-six in 2019.
That same year, Major League Soccer named Valenzuela to its 22-Under-22 list, the League’s annual showcase highlighting its top burgeoning young talent.
And of course, it was only three weeks till Opening Match. At home. Against the New York Red Bulls, the team that eliminated Columbus the season prior.
Then, it happened. The words no player, teammate, or honestly, even most competitor wants to hear: “season-ending.”
That was it, from the start. No chance in 2019.
How would the knee rehabilitate? What’s the timeline? Will its integrity return to normal? What is “normal” now?
All valid questions. All too much to grasp at that point in time.
"I think that scared me a little..."
Coincidently, the injury was similar in nature to the one suffered by former Crew defender and fellow Argentine Gaston Sauro.
Valenzuela noted Sauro’s was more severe, but he understood the gravity of the situation and admitted that, at first, he was afraid.
“It was hard because I had just spent a year alongside Gaston Sauro, who had an injury like mine although more severe, and he had told me what had happened to him, what he had felt, the time he spent recovering,” Valenzuela said.
“I think that scared me a little – knowing what the rehabilitation process was like, how long it was. I was afraid of not being able to return to how I was prior to the injury.”
Valenzuela was slated to remain a starter at leftback, where he earned seven assists and one goal in 32 starts overall in 2018 before suffering an ACL injury in Chula Vista, Calif. during the Crew’s preseason camp in 2019.
It was a season of change, you could call it, and not just for Valenzuela but for the team, the front office, and the city. New ownership, a new coaching staff, a new style & identity – a total pivot in nearly every respect.
As the year progressed, so did the mentality of the team. A future-focused outlook with optimism derived from solid late-season play, months of scouting, and eventual signings coming to fruition.
Implementing those initiatives were arduous and, of course, time-consuming.
Valenzuela’s recovery was no different.
"I was patient, I worked..."
For nearly half a year, the 21-year-old was solely limited to strengthening exercises and could not put much weight on his knee.
“It was a very slow process. After about six months I was able to train a little more, train a little harder, begin to run. That’s when I felt I was starting to train again.”
After nearly eight months, Valenzuela was finally able to work with the ball and work on changing directions. But just when he was able to resume light soccer-specific drills, the 2019 season came to an end.
“I had the bad luck that when I was about to begin training full contact the season ended, and I wasn’t able to train full contact with my teammates, so I had to continue to train with the ball by myself,” he said.
Bad luck? Perhaps.
Or fortuitous timing on behalf of his body.
“On the other hand, maybe it was good, because it gave my knee more time to regain its strength before resuming full contact,” he said.
Regardless, what resonated from the rehabilitation was not just the return of a healthy knee.
The byproduct of the injury and recovery was the proof of how truly integral his family (an encompassing term) was in the process from the moment of the incident till now.
And to say that Valenzuela received a great deal of support from all walks of life would be an understatement.
“My mom – from day one when I was injured and I called her – she told me she would be there with me. She was with me during the first two months, which were the toughest ones and the ones in which I needed help the most because I couldn’t get around much. She helped me during those first two months and after that I was able to travel back home to Argentina two times.
“My family kept in contact with me through social media and text messages, showing me their support and showing they cared about me, asking how I was. I tried to send them videos every time I progressed a little, every time I noticed I was making a leap forward in my rehabilitation.”
The progression was slow and, at times, undeniably painful, something that his teammates encouraged him to embrace.
“All of my teammates gave me words of encouragement. Some more than others based on our relationships, but they all gave me their support. They would tell me to keep working, to be patient even if it was difficult, that the moment would come, that the process was slow but that I would be okay. So that’s what I did, I was patient, I worked… at times I would get anxious about returning, but here I am.”
Maintaining a positive attitude during the rehabilitation was something he could not have done alone, he emphasized, starting with the medical staff’s guidance.
“It was hard, but I think I was able to lean on great people who made it easier for me to remain positive. Mainly Jeff, the one who I was working with during the first six months. He is a great person who helped me a lot and made sure I didn’t get too down because it was hard.”
As important “teamwork” is to those on the pitch, the less-recognized but integral aspect of Valenzuela’s recovery was the collaboration from the Club’s technical and medical staff.
“When I began training at Obetz, Kelly [Roderick], Brooke [Hamilton], Federico [Pizzuto], Alex [Mysiw], Daniel [Givens], Chris [Shenberger] – a lot of people were working with me – Jay [Short], the dietician. They were all supporting me, giving me strength and pushing me but not letting me fall. I’m very grateful, I think that without them the rehabilitation process would not have been as smooth.”
"It filled me with happiness to know that I am able to do what I love..."
So, envision you are in Valenzuela’s shoes and fast forward to now.
Skip ahead from life as a boy from Rosario, Argentina growing up watching Fast and Furious films; through the period playing at the esteemed Newell’s Old Boys, his hometown club, just as Lionel Messi and Marcelo Bielsa did; go beyond the sleepless nights, the taxing travels, the cyclical doctors’ appointments, scans, and evaluations.
Add to Calendar | Sync 2020 Schedule
Now, we land in the present and zoom back out.
The day is Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, and for the first time in over a year, the Crew family got their first glimpse of the return of Milton Valenzuela.
In the moment, Feb. 15 at 9 p.m. ET (just before kickoff) was a normal day for Valenzuela.
But it was what those ensuing 90 minutes meant that made a world of difference.
“I think that before the match I didn’t imagine feeling the way I felt after the 90 minutes. I walked onto the stadium, onto the field, the same way I had done in previous preseason friendlies, and the moment the match was over I realized the magnitude of what I had accomplished.
“Last year was very tough for me. It was different, it was not normal. I had never lived something like that and I had never imagined living something like that. It was tough. To be able to play 90 minutes the other day for the first time and feel good – the truth is that it filled me with happiness to know that I am able to do what I love, what I like without having any issues as far as my knee goes.”
Simply put, the level of support he received was eye-opening.
Preseason grind continues!! Extremely proud of @miltonvalenzuela_ this man was so dedicated and worked so hard for months to get healthy after his ACL injury. Congratulations on 90 mins bro. So pumped for you. God always gets the Glory. pic.twitter.com/5igGQWprCH— Gyasi Zardes (@gyasinho) February 16, 2020
Excited to see this fighter back on the field with the team. After been out the whole of last year, he played his first 90 minutes game last night and was excellent. #Crew96 #MiltonIsBack 🙏🏽👊🏽🙌🏽🖤💛 pic.twitter.com/ifQF5fkSWi— Jonathan Mensah (@Jomens25) February 16, 2020
“They make me feel loved,” Valenzuela said after the game about his support system.
His teammates, the staff, his family, the supporters…just everyone.
“I like being around good people and in the same way that I like being supported, I like giving my support to others who are going through tough times. Or if they’re going through good times, I want to congratulate them and be there for them, encouraging them – that is important within a team. It made me feel good, it made me realize the type of people we have here at the Club and that made me very happy.
"I’m going to take advantage and do it more than ever."
Now Valenzuela comes into 2020 with a different approach, both as a soccer player and as a human playing the game he loves.
From that perspective, watching from the sidelines was, as he described, weird and difficult, but a learning process all the same.
“It was weird. I had never been in a situation like this for such a long time. I was able to see, tactically, how the team played from the outside-in. It gave me a different view, but at the same time I felt – how do I put this – in a certain way I felt useless because I couldn’t be on the field helping my teammates like I would’ve liked. In that sense it was hard. Tactically, I watched the things that you review as a team – the mistakes, the things you do well. I think from the outside-in I reviewed things, not more than my teammates, but maybe I saw it more clearly because I had a different perspective of the game and drew conclusions of it.”
So far for Valenzuela, this preseason has truly been about being conscious of every opportunity regardless of the setting.
“I tried to enjoy everything because last year was so tough. Knowing that I am training once again with my teammates, with the ball, not having to train by myself - [knowing that] I tried to enjoy everything to the fullest. I tried to train with joy and take advantage of each time that I played in a game or in training – using those opportunities to better myself, to better my timing, my speed of play.
“At first it was difficult, my passes weren’t as sharp, I didn’t have the same vision. I felt that my teammates were thinking quicker than me, but slowly I gained rhythm and began to feel more and more comfortable. So as I said, I enjoyed every moment. Physically I tried to enjoy it too because I know that it’s good for me and now I’m going to take advantage and do it more than ever.”
With an attitude like that, it is safe to assume we have yet to see the best of Milton Valenzuela in the Black & Gold. #FuerzaMilton