HANOVER, N.J. — With arms stretched, Florian Valot ran toward the corner flag, spun and tugged on the shoulders of his jersey before Michael Murillo jumped into his arms.
It was arguably the biggest moment of a Major League Soccer career that almost never materialized.
It was 2015 and Valot had just finished his senior season at Rider University. The native of Pau, a city in the southwest of France set along the Pyrenees mountains, went to a combine in Las Vegas attended by Toronto FC, New York City FC and Seattle Sounders FC. But no team followed up with him.
That was it, he thought, his aspirations of a professional career were over.
“I was going to quit,” Valot told Pro Soccer USA.
Valot already started planning out his next course of action — finish his senior year at Rider, return to Europe and attend graduate school.
And then came the call that changed everything.
On the other end of Valot’s cellphone was Jesse Marsch, inviting him to a tryout for local college players.
“I just said why not, let’s try it and see how it goes,” Valot said. “It was a tough time, but it helped me be mentally prepared and strong and I’m glad I stuck with it.”
Marsch said the first day of the tryout is meant to shock the system. The “rondos” — games where one group has the ball while in numerical superiority, while the side with fewer numbers attempts to win the ball back — were especially chaotic.
“That kid didn’t lose a ball,” Marsch said to sporting director Denis Hamlett, who at the time was a Red Bulls assistant coach. “He’s sharp, he’s clean, he’s clear.”
After a trial, Valot signed with the United Soccer League’s Red Bulls II in June 2016. After his second USL season, Marsch sat down the 25-year-old and laid out this year’s plan.
“I told him he was coming in an MLS player, but I also told him that mentally needed to be locked in,” Marsch said. “The first week of preseason wasn’t great. He was struggling a bit, and then we had another conversation.”
Valot knew preseason started poorly, and even though he signed an MLS contract on Dec. 20, he was certain he’d return to Red Bulls II to start the season.
Things changed with another phone call, this one from his father, Yves-Andre.
“His father basically told him, ‘Live life to its fullest, stop being hard on yourself, stop worrying about mistakes, go out, play and have fun,’” Marsch said.
Valot did just that, impressing Marsch so much in preseason that the coach felt confident when Marc Rzatkowski went down with an injury that Valot could perform in the cauldron that was Estadio Caliente against Club Tijuana in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals.
“I was so excited to put him in the game. I knew he’d be ready to go,” Marsch said. “Flo went in that game and played great. That’s when he even proved to himself he can play at this level. From there on in, he hasn’t looked back. The key will be that he continues the self-belief and the hunger and commitment to improve every day and really get after things.”
Valot is one of 2018’s top MLS success stories. He’s become a regular starter for the Red Bulls and has three goals and three assists, including a goal and an assist in that 4-0 win over NYCFC.
“It’s crazy. I was not expecting to be there at that point of the season,” Valot said. “But I think I was well prepared for the last two years playing with USL and I think it paid off, actually, really quick.”
Watch all of Florian Valot’s 2018 MLS goals below.
GOAL: Florian Valot with another early Red Bulls goal
GOAL: Florian Valot doubles the Red Bulls advantage
GOAL: Florian Valot heads in Kaku’s perfect cross