After going down 1-0 in 49th minute, Austin FC II found itself in a position it has not often faced in the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro season. A squad more known for its stingy defense than hot scoring had to find a way forward.
That's where Valentin Noël came in. Noël earned the MLS NEXT Pro Cup MVP honors with two key actions. First, he drew a penalty kick that allowed Austin FC to equalize. Then, he scored with an incredible top-corner strike to put his team ahead.
"It is the perfect way to end it," Noël said after the game, holding the MVP trophy. "And I'm just so grateful to be able to just be part of this community and this whole coaching staff, and obviously, all the players that have been brought here for this first year. I'm just really grateful and proud."
Noël was taken down in the box, leading to Austin FC II's 70th-minute tying goal. His 77th-minute strike came about with a connection Noël has been building all season with CJ Fodrey.
Fodrey, a fellow 2023 MLS SuperDraft pick by Austin FC, entered the match at halftime and provided plenty of attacking momentum for Austin FC II. He assisted Noël's go-ahead goal.
"He came back [from playing with the Austin FC first team] for the end of these playoffs and definitely had a huge part in his final," Noël said. "He brings his physicality. He's bringing speed and his shots and stuff like that. He's a big dude for his age."
It's not the first time Noël has come up big for Austin FC II in the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro playoffs. Noël scored the winning goal in a Western Conference semifinal win over Tacoma Defiance.
For Austin FC II coach Brett Uttley, it was no surprise that Noël stepped up to deliver big in the championship victory.
"He just understands the game at such a high level," Uttley said of Noël. "He has the ability to play multiple positions. You know, he's played as a left winger for us. He's played as a holding midfielder. He's played as a No. 8. He's played as a No. 10. He has the ability to play pretty much all over the field. And he's a selfless guy. And he was just really, really instrumental tonight."
Noël moves forward from his first season in MLS NEXT Pro with the continued goal of finding a place in the Austin FC first team.
"I've been fortunate and grateful to get a little little sense of it during the Leagues Cup," Noël said. "But obviously, I want more. But other than that, great experience, [I can] really build from that. And, you know, it's always good to put a MLS NEXT Pro Cup trophy on your resume."