Xavier Valdez has never been one to let adversity take control of his career.
“The one thing that strikes me with Xavier is his willingness to always find ways to make things work in a positive way for himself,” says Jason Grubb, Dynamo 2 Goalkeeper Coach. “Even back in New York, when he realized he wasn’t going to progress, he found a way to get to a better situation in Shattuck St. Mary’s … If it wasn’t for his willingness to find solutions away from a comfortable environment, he wouldn’t be where he is today.”
That willingness hasn’t only led to his progression through the ranks at the Houston Dynamo but catching the eye of Grubb at his other position of goalkeeping coach for the United States U-20 National Team. Despite being in and around a few camps for Mikey Varas’ side, Valdez was ultimately not selected as part of the roster for the CONCACAF U-20 Championship. Grubb, however, turned this into an opportunity – working on a development plan with First Team Goalkeeper Coach Zac Thornton – and helping Valdez to continue to push on in his career.
Valdez, likewise, made the negative into a positive – joining up with the Dominican Republic U-20 side for the tournament.
“My mentality was just to give as much confidence as I could to the team,” said Valdez. “One of the strongest things that fueled us was to worry about the current game we had at hand, nothing after that. We weren’t expected to get as far as we did... with the group that we had; we had more heart than every team. We formed good relationships on and off the field.”
Having already qualified directly to the knockout stage, Valdez and the Dominican Republic’s first test came against Group G winners, El Salvador.
“That first goal against El Salvador helped us a lot,” reflected Valdez on the team’s 5-4 thrilling victory to advance. “It showed us that we can score, we can do this.”
However, the four goals conceded led the Dominican Republic to have multiple meetings about their defensive structure. “Most of those goals weren’t through the run of play,” remembers Valdez. However, Valdez said, the overall fallout of the El Salvador game was a positive, with the team retooling their defensive approach.
Next up was Jamaica, a team who themselves had gone on a bit of an unexpected journey. Third in Group H, Jamaica had pulled off a quarterfinal run with a spot in the semi-finals – and World Cup qualification – on the line.
“I understood what I was playing for,” said Valdez on the match. “Being with a team like that, who had a whole country supporting and depending on them... there’s nothing else like it. To play for a team that was exciting for me to be there was massive. Entering a new environment, meeting some new people that just want to be your friend and get out of their current situation.”
The Dominican Republic would defeat Jamaica, 1-0, to advance to the semi-finals against Guatemala. From there, a dramatic win on penalties meant a ticket to the final against United States – and qualification for the 2024 Olympic Games.
"I’ve lived in the Dominican Republic, so I understand what those guys are and have gone through,” said Valdez. “A lot of those guys just want to get out. It’s not easy as it may be over here. It made me think about my own motivation. What do I play for? Seeing what a team can do when they are all close and want the best for each other – you can beat any team. It was difficult – we got frustrated, there were factors that got in our way, but we still found a way. If there’s a will there’s a way.”
The final is not much to write home about in relation to Valdez’s story. He missed due to injury – and the United States won comfortably – but a key point in Valdez’s journey comes after the game.
“I managed to meet with him in the tunnel with him, away from everyone else,” said Grubb, who spent the tournament with the United States. “I told him how much credit he deserves for getting himself to this position. Two and a half years ago, he was playing for Shattuck St. Mary’s... within that span, he moved to an MLS club and found your way to an Olympic games and World Cup with the Dominican Republic. It’s a testament to the story you’ve had as a young player. He always finds a way. We shared that moment and those words – it was really satisfying.”
With the dust now settled, both Valdez and Grubb can reflect on the work that has gotten them both to this point – and the work that continues back in Houston as Dynamo 2 look to push for the playoffs.
“I don’t think I played as well as I could have,” admits Valdez. “There were factors in that ... but I knew playing with those guys and the goals I conceded, there’s still a lot of work to be done. It showed me another side of playing for a team, playing with people who want something better and want to be happy no matter what. That’s a big inspiration for me. A lot of people back in the U.S., there’s an excuse to not be happy – and for those guys, there’s a reason to be happy. To play in an environment in that, there’s nothing else like it.”
“Although the story is unbelievable – I am not surprised one bit by Xavier being there,” said Grubb. “He’s got an incredible support system with Pat, Jimmy, and Zac. All three have had immense careers, and it’s a massive plus for him to be around them.”
“This cannot be the last chapter in his story,” said Grubb. “This needs to be a springboard to make the next step – impact Dynamo Two in a positive way, push Michael Nelson and Steve Clark every day for an opportunity in the first team, and push to make his impact on a world stage. For me, he’s got his best days in front of him.”