Fans of the Colorado Rapids from back in the day no doubt remember one of the most popular goal celebrations this team has seen. Whenever Panamanian forward Jorge Dely Valdes scored, he would raise his hand to his ear and simulate a phone call.
It's been 14 years since Dely Valdes became the first Panamanian player to join MLS, coming over after years in Japan in 1999. In his two seasons with the Rapids, Dely Valdes scored 17 goals in 52 games in Colorado before returning to Japan. These days, Jorge is the assistant coach to his brother, Julio, for Panama's National Team.
We caught up with Jorge when he visited Dick's Sporting Goods Park ahead of Panama's Gold Cup match in Denver on July 14.
How do you look back at the two seasons you played for the Colorado Rapids?
"Very nice. That was in 1999 and 2000. When I arrived, it was a different experience to what I had previously had, more so because I had spent many years in Japan which had a culture completely different from the rest of the world. But it was a beautiful experience, because I found myself around a great group of experienced players, some of them had been part of the U.S. National Team. Others, like (Anders) Limpar, who had played some World Cups with Sweden. So really, I have very beautiful memories of that time I spent with the Rapids."
A lot has changed since you played in MLS...
"It's true, very true. When I was here those years we played at Mile High Stadium, which I believe they've torn down and built a new one for the Broncos. That's where the Rapids played their home games. But now I've seen that it's completely changed. They have a much more beautiful complex, with a stadium for their home games. But a lot has changed. It's been 14 years since those days."
Let's go back to your goals and popular celebration. Tell us how that 'call home' celebration started...
"When I was in the Japanese League, I was fortunate to be on six teams over there. In the last team I was with before coming to MLS, we had a good first year but in the second year things on the field weren't going very well. I think it was around 6-7 games without winning. So obviously, the fanatics were desperate for results. And us players kept fighting trying to break that bad stretch.
I remember one game, against Yokohama, as visitors, I told my teammate Hugo Maradona "if I score a goal I going to simulate a phone call, but as a call to all the fans." It was to tell them to stay calm, that we're going to break this bad run. And so from then on, I started 'calling' all my goals. Then different versions came about - that I was calling my brother (Julio) in Spain, or that I was calling my family in Panama. So that's where that started, the simulation of calling home."
I know it's been 14 years, and you scored a lot of goals in your career, including 17 with Colorado. Is there any goal with the Rapids that stands out to you to this day?
"Yes, of course. I was fortunate to score goals. I don't know if you remember but in those days the clock counted up, and when games ended tied, in that era the shoot out existed. But yes, I remember the goal I scored against Tampa Bay as visitors. There were 29 seconds left in the game, and with 9 second left I scored a goal on a header. It's one of the ones that I remember most because there were also many Panamanians in the stands and I made my 'call home.'
One enjoys all the goals. For me all the goals were important. But thinking quickly that's one that stands out the most with the Rapids."
(NOTE: That game was on August 13, 1999 at Raymond James Stadium. Dely Valdes scored off a give-and-go with Kevin Anderson to defeat the Mutiny 1-0 in a regular-season match that also counted as the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup. The Rapids then defeated the Charleston Battery in the semifinals on their way to their only Open Cup Championship game that year).
Your were the first Panamanian to play in MLS and had a flair and personality to go along with your goals. Is there another Jorge Dely Valdes in the future of MLS?
"I think so, because Panamanian soccer has evolved a lot. CONCACAF, with the Champions Cup, has allowed these Central American countries to display their football - so that countries like Mexico and the United States can see them. I think that has helped a lot.
In recent years, it's true that Panamanian football has grown a lot. And even at the National Team levels it has grown. And in some ways, the senior National Team is a showcase for these players to be seen by other leagues.
It's true that I was the first Panamanian to come to MLS, but others have also come. Roberto Brown (Colorado Rapids, Montreal Impact) and Blaz Perez (Dallas), now in his second season. Also Carlos Rodriguez (Dallas) among others. I think we need to continue working towards that so that - hopefully - they can bring many more Panamanians to this league, which has also grown so much.
When I was here, the Seattle team didn't exist, and neither did Portland. Their fans are among the best - the soccer here has grown a lot. In Panama I've had the opportunity to watch games on ESPN and can see how much the league has grown, and that makes me proud."
Finally, anything you'd like to say to the Rapids fans that still remember your contributions...
"Yes of course. I want to take advantage through the team's website to send a greeting to all those fans who always supported me during my time with the Rapids. I always have very good memories of my two years here in Colorado and I always keep them close to my heart."