Two banners hang over Pittser Field at Montclair State University Soccer Park. The two pieces don’t flutter in the win but their messages are clear. They honor the 2016 New York Red Bulls II team that won both the United Soccer League regular season and playoff championship.
They aren’t flashy and time has somewhat worn them down. But they still hold memories to anyone who witnessed that team’s climb to the top. Anyone, such as Florian Valot. The French-born midfielder was a member of that team, plus RBNY’s Major League Soccer squad, for a handful of years in the late 2010s and early 20s. His winding journey brought him back to the field last Friday as a member of The Miami FC, a side in the now-renamed USL Championship. The Championship sits just below MLS in the second division of U.S. Soccer.
“I’m really happy to be back here,” Valot told NYCSN in an interview ahead of his team’s match. “I had a lot of great memories here with Red Bull. I’m here, I’m coming here with a team to win, of course, obviously. But it’s special seeing some familiar faces, some familiar players as well. I’m pretty excited”
Florian Valot’s return to northern New Jersey was spectacular if you didn’t care about RBNY II. He played a full 90 minutes in his team’s 7-1 rout against the struggling reserve team (who sit last in the entire league). After going down early, Miami surged back and tied the game within 10 minutes. Valot played somewhat of a role in his team’s go-ahead goal in the 26th minute. His free kick into the box was hit around until it was tucked away by Joaquín Rivas. Outside of this moment he had a few looks on net but couldn’t convert, including a one on one chance at the end of the game.
“Flo was excellent in his positioning,” The Miami FC head coach Anthony Pulis said after the match. “(He) was probably a little disappointed that he didn’t get the goal that his performance deserved cause he got into really good areas. His pressing, his work ethic. His understanding of spaces and where to receive the ball and when to run in behind is, at this level, exceptional.”
It was a good night for Florian overall. His team won and he, again, went the full 90 minutes and performed well as a set-up man. It’s a far cry from where he was when he last left a Red Bull facility last August.
At 29, Valot’s journey to Miami wasn’t straight or simple by any means. He joined the Red Bulls in 2016 after a youth career with Monaco and a college career with Rider University. He spent years mostly with Red Bulls II before making his first team move in December of 2017. His 2018 season was going well, making 13 starts and scoring three goals, until mid-summer. In July, Valot tore his ACL during a training session and missed the rest of the season recovering. His return to the field the next season was short lived. After starting both games in 2019, the midfielder tore his other ACL in the home opener against the San Jose Earthquakes. This forced yet another surgery and caused him to miss the rest of the 2019 campaign.
While Valot said both his legs felt fine during the interview there really wasn’t a need to ask. His return in 2020 to Harrison was his best season in MLS. In the opening game against FC Cincinnati on March 1, Valot assisted on two goals during the 3-2 win. Even after COVID affected the year he went on to make 23 appearances and score two goals. It’s why many, including myself, still consider him the true “MLS Comeback Player of the Year” for that season. No offense to Bradley Wright-Phillips.
However, under new head coach Gerhard Struber Valot’s minutes began to decrease. By August of 2021 he’d only played three times. His eventual trade to Cincinnati didn’t amount to much either. Though that team lost 15 of 16 games with him there so maybe that was for the best. Regardless, when his contract expired in December of 2021 Valot wasn’t certain of his future.
“I’ve had a really tough year last year, physically and mentally,” he admitted. “I almost decided to retire and stop playing.”
Instead, Valot was contacted by another team. The Miami FC was entering it’s third year in USL Championship with a new head coach at the helm. Former Inter Miami CF (yes they are different teams) assistant coach Anthony Pulis laid down his idea for where he wanted to take Miami and how that involved Florian.
According to Valot, that conversation and the ones after it saved his career.
“(Pulis) just convinced me to join Miami. He had a plan. I really enjoyed his vision, the way we talk about football. I came here with an open mindset (to) hopefully get some playing time and earn my spot. (I’ve) been playing week in and week out. And that’s what’s positive about this year is just playing every weekend. No matter how good the stats are or how good we are playing. Personally, for the feeling of being playing like 90 minutes, sometimes three games a week, it’s special. So for me, it’s already a win.”
Had a chance to speak to @florian_valot ahead of @TheMiamiFC’s match against @NYRBII tonight. Great catching up with the @NewYorkRedBulls fan favorite. Expect an article on @SportsNationNYC soon.#RBNY #NYRBII #VamosMiami #USL #NYCSN #USLChampionship pic.twitter.com/8hQOF7hsWw
— Michael Battista (@MichaelBattista) September 9, 2022
Any talk of retirement has been pushed aside. His form has returned as a building block piece of Miami’s midfield. Coincidentally, the three man middle also includes two more former NYRB II players. Bolu Akinyode and Devon “Speedy” Williams have flanked Florian this year to great effect. Since July, they’ve helped lead the team to eight wins, two draws, and only two losses.
“I’m really satisfied with the way I’ve played this year, especially in Miami with the weather. The intensity we put in week in and week out, (at) practice, in games,” he said. “I think I have a lot more to give whether it’s in Miami or elsewhere in the future.”
While Bull fans can have some hope, Valot reiterated that he’s committed to finishing this year out strong. His contract with Miami also runs until the end of 2023. Though he might not want to leave South Beach for reasons besides the great weather.
Having started 24 games, the most since his 2017 season with NYRB II, he’s appeared in all but one regular season game with Miami this year. He’s made the USL Championship’s “Team of the Week” twice, is tied for sixth most assists this season (8) across the league, and he’s scored three goals between late July and the end of August.
It probably helps being surrounded by a team that isn’t built normally. Miami FC’s story can’t be fully explained in this article. But just know that since being founded in 2016 the team has played in four leagues, including a drop into the amateur levels, and won two and half national titles. That history allowed Miami, especially under former head coach Paul Dalglish, to develop a roster with different ties.
Players on the team ranged from former amateur competition that Miami scooped up, to top USL talent from other teams, to cast off MLS names looking for another shot. All these types of players work at Miami as a unit that’s currently nearing a playoff berth.
It’s that foundation, and how it comes together, that helped sell Miami to Valot as a second chance.
“When I looked at the roster before coming, I was like, ‘wow, we are deep.’ Like we have good experience, we have good players, and I think there’s something special to be done with this team,” he explained. “We have a lot of quality, we have a lot of rotations, we can try different information with different players. So it’s been really exciting.”
With the USL season beginning to wrap up Miami only needs another point or two to clinch a second straight playoff berth. They’ll either finish the season in sixth, where they currently sit, or seventh in the last playoff spot. A postseason game at home isn’t in the cards. Which means fighting off Detroit City FC for the higher playoff seeding is the objective right now.
Those two teams will face off in Miami to close out the regular season on Saturday, October 15. While that might be the team’s focus overall, Florian still knows it’s getting there that matters. His goal his to get the team to the postseason whether that’s on the road against Memphis 901 FC or at in-state rival Tampa Bay Rowdies.
“It just doesn’t matter how you get there. You just have to get there. To win the championship you have to win against any team. We’ve been a unit altogether and play as a team. We’ve conceded not a lot of goals and got a lot of clean sheets as well. Now we just need to score… but I think it’s coming and once we get rolling, we’re gonna be really scary to play against.”
Considering this interview was recorded before his team’s 7-1 win that night, maybe this is a start. Still regardless, last Friday was a nice, full circle moment. As the interview wrapped up, Valot turned around to see a familiar face heading his way. Bradley Wright-Phillips, the ‘official’ winner of the 2020 “MLS Comeback Player of the Year” award, smiled and hugged his former teammate. As they talked, it really set in how both players are so much alike. Both dealt with injury and worked to get back on the field around the same time. While BWP’s career has ended and he now finds himself with RBNY in differing capacities, Valot is different. In his own words, he still has a lot more to give the game.
— Michael Battista (@MichaelBattista) September 9, 2022