Union defender Carlos Valdes recalls having a soccer ball by his feet at the earliest of ages, even in places it wasn't preferred.
Growing up in Colombia, Valdes laughingly recalls some of the dicey situations he got himself into after making some errant kicks that went wide of any goal.
"I used to get in trouble, because as a kid I would kick the soccer ball in the house, shoot it around and break several pieces of glass and windows throughout," he said at PPL Park, following a recent practice.
Valdes, 26, spoke with the help of an interpreter, although his English is improving just the way his team has due to his presence.
While the addition of goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, a fellow Colombian, is largely credited with the Union's stunning turnaround in their second year, the presence of Valdes is a major factor in the Union's 6-3-3 record heading into Saturday's 4 p.m. Major League Soccer match at PPL Park with Real Salt Lake (6-3-2).
Valdes, Mondragon, and midfielder-forward Sebastien Le Toux are the only three members of the team who have played every minute this season.
The Union, who went 8-15-7 in their inaugural MLS season and allowed 49 goals, are second in MLS in fewest goals allowed, with 10. By comparison, the Union had allowed 23 goals after their first 12 games a year ago.
Valdes isn't flashy, but always seems to be in position at his center back spot. A major reason for his success is that he reads the game so well.
"I am not sure there is a defender there who has had a better year and bigger impact," said Diego Gutierrez, the Union's director of scouting and player development who concluded his 12-year MLS career following the 2008 season with Chicago. "I am removing myself from the role and being impartial, and I don't see a whole lot of defenders out there who have had the impact he had."
Gutierrez is chiefly responsible for bringing Valdes to Philadelphia. Valdes is on loan from his club, Independiente Santa Fe in Colombia, where he was team captain. The Union will have the option to sign him to a permanent deal after the season.
Gutierrez estimates he first saw Valdes playing five years ago, while still an active player. As his career was winding down, Gutierrez knew he wanted to eventually work in management so he took a mental note about players and filed them for a later date. When Gutierrez first saw him, Valdes was the captain of the America de Cali team, where he made 97 appearances from 2005 to 2008.
"I realized he was somebody special when I saw him and was somebody who felt pride about defending," Gutierrez said.
Valdes admitted there was some apprehension in coming to a new country but says he has enjoyed his stay. He and his wife live in South Philadelphia, not far from the NovaCare Complex.
"It was very difficult to come for many reasons, especially being away from your family," he said. "But everything has gone really well, and the organization and my teammates have been great."
He said the biggest adjustment has been to the physical play, although at 6 feet and 175 pounds, Valdes doesn't back down from anybody. He has great speed and athletic ability, but his main strength is the calming influence he has even when the action is frenzied.
"He trusts his instincts, he doesn't get frazzled, and has the composure to deal with any situation that comes at him," Union assistant coach John Hackworth said.
Valdes, who has been playing professionally since 18 and has four caps with the senior Colombia national team, has demonstrated the ability to make those around him better.
"Carlos is a solid player, a really solid guy who brings it every day and every game," said fellow central defender Danny Califf. "The addition of Carlos and Faryd have been huge in stabilizing us."
Valdes says he has been energized playing in front of the wildly supportive home fans. The Union have averaged 18,101 in six home game at PPL Park, where capacity is 18,500.
"Before coming here I saw Union games on the Internet and was able to experience the fans and the party atmosphere at the stadium," Valdes said. "It made a real impact on me."
And in turn, he has made an even greater impact on the team in a relatively short period of time.
Salt Lake vs. Union
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: PPL Park