CHIVAS USA: A conversation with ... Zarek Valentin
Chivas USA's top draft pick earlier this year is having a grand time in Southern California, and he's doing pretty well on the soccer field, too.
Defender Zarek Valentin, whom the Goats took with the fourth overall selection in January's Major League Soccer draft, has been a starter for Chivas in three of the four MLS matches he has played, first in the middle and now at right back, the position he was expected to fill when he joined the club following two seasons at NCAA powerhouse Akron, with which he won a national title last December.
Valentin, 19, will be on the right flank again Saturday night when the Goats (1-2-3), fresh off their first victory under new head coach Robin Fraser, take the field Saturday night at Home Depot Center against the New England Revolution.
He says he's learning every day, from roommate Heath Pearce -- a natural outside back who has moved into the middle for the Goats -- from former Akron teammates Blair Gavin and Ben Zemanski, even from his older brother, Julian Valentin, a former backliner for the Galaxy who retired as a player earlier this year.
ESPN Los Angeles chatted this week with the Goats' top rookie.
We're six weeks or so into your first pro season. Any revelations?
It's just the grind, the mental strain of the game. You could do two or three games in college, and you'd be fine, as opposed to one game (in MLS) and you're gassed for two or three days.
Managing your body is something you have to do, taking ice baths and doing extra stretching and stuff like that, and going in before training to get even more loose so you can get your body ready. Thats been the biggest revelation.
What is the game like mentally at this level?
It's definitely difficult, because you can't tune out for one second. If you do, the other team might get chances that put you behind. It's just a matter of trying to stay focused.
Heath has really helped me out with trying to stay aware. Basically, he called me a ball-watcher for awhile, just being amazed at the game, and he told me you have to play the game and don't watch it. Thats one thing Im trying to take into account, especially being out wide -- it's a little different. You don't have to organize and be as aware as a center back, but you still have to be aware.
Do you find your ability to anticipate has grown?
It's mostly reading the game and being aware of situations. The best way to learn is by playing the game, and I'm still going through ... I think its my fourth game? Fifth game? So it's still a lot of learning, and I'm trying to take it step by step, but the more I play, the better I'll be.
How is it to play in front of the kind of crowds your seeing?
It's amazing. I came into the Vancouver game [on April 16), playing 45 minutes, and that was amazing. It was such a great atmosphere. And we have great fans as well. It's a matter of getting used to it and knowing that all eyes are on you.
It's a good rush, and I usually tend to deal with those things well. It's a matter of trying to stick to your game and not letting the crowd or the referee or other players influence you. You're trying to focus on what your task is and the team's ultimate goal, and that's to win.
Is it about tuning things out on the field?
Yeah, exactly. Even the Vancouver game, they were definitely a loud and rowdy crowd, and when they get a chance, everyone would be on their feet, and it's just a matter of trying to stay focused within your own game.
A couple of years ago, I would honestly get caught up in those things, and I'd out [of focus] for awhile, and I'd get punuished. But over time I've learnd to cut those out of my game, and it's weird. When I get into the zone, I cant think of anything else, I can't see things. You get honed in. Thats good, though.
Your brother, Julian, also played for U.S. youth national teams, also won an NCAA championship (at Wake Forest) and played for the Galaxy. How often do you guys talk?
I talk to him at least twice a week about games -- before games, after every game. He gives me pointers, gives me advice.
You got to watch him as you were growing up, and he was such a galvanizing force on the field.
I tried to learn from him a lot. A lot of the intangible things he brings to the table, you know, his leadership, his heart, his desire, everything like that, I try to take that on. I was maybe blessed with certain things and him with other things, so I'm trying to take into account what he had to offer.
I couldn't have asked for anything better. I'd go to [youth national team] World Cups and watch him play. I was surrounded by the players he was with -- the Freddy Adus, the Danny Szetelas, the Robbie Rogerses, Jozy Altidores -- so I tried to soak up as much as I could, and having that and being able to talk to him about his experiences has been priceless.
Too bad you guys couldn't play together.
Yeah, we always talked about that. I played against him once when he was with the Galaxy and I was with the U-18 national team. I think we would have been a decent center-back pairing. We always talked about maybe what if, what if, what if. It never happened, but he still lives on in spirit, and I always talk to him a lot.
In a few years, you guys can team up on a rec-league team.
Oh, yeah, the over-40 league. We'll be looking forward to it, trust me.
They talk about the "rookie wall," which first-year players usually hit around July or August. Because the season is so much longer than the college season --Oh, this is two college seasons already. I've played my two years of college already the first couple of months this season, and we're like six games in.
I haven't honesty heard of [the "rookie wall"], and I hope I don't fall into that catgory, and that's just a matter, I think, of staying strong. I've been surrounded by players who have helped me through this. ... I have some teammates who are some old friends, so I've come into a great envionment where they've given me knowledge that you have to take care of your body. They said it's a grind, the season's a long season, take care of your body. ...
My Akron teammates have been beyond helpful.
When Chivas drafted you, Robin talked about you being the right back of the future, maybe of the present. You started the season at center back and moved to the right side when Michael Lahoud was hurt a couple of games ago, and it looks like a natural fit.
Actually, right back's been a little bit new to me. The only time I've ever played right back was with the under-20s. I'm just trying to get more and more comfortable. I'm still learning every single day. I have a lot of things to soak up. Crossing's one of them I've tried to work on a lot, to be more dangerous going into attack, and also how to defend certain players.
I mean, you get [San Jose's] Bobby Convey one week and maybe [Columbus'] Robbie Rogers the week before. I'm trying to take into account a lot of things, because it's a lot different than the middle. You're a lot more isolated, and the options are different.
I'm trying to keep adapting. Wherever the team needs me, I'll be.
You were strictly a center back at Akron?
I was completely a center back. I think I played right back for maybe 15 minutes of one game last year.
You had fellow first-round draft pick Kofi Sarkodie on the right?
Kofi was on the right. He's quite a right back. Honestly, he taught me stuff, gave me pointers. He was a big help to me. I know that he's doing his thing in Houston, and I know he's been pushing for a starting spot. I'm happy for him.
You're from Lancaster, Pa., spent some time in Florida for U-17 residency, went to college in Akron, Ohio? How has it been moving to L.A.?
L.A.'s amazing. It was one of the first beach days the other day, so Heath and I were at the beach, just hanging out. Brought some speakers and played some music and just relaxed. ... I can't ask for anything else. I wear shorts and a T-shirt or jeans and a T-shirt. It's amazing, compared to Akron or PA, where it's snowing or raining -- apparently, it's been raining for awhile now.
Honestly, it's paradise out here for me. Im still trying to adjust -- I think people can tell I'm a little bit new because I'm so, like, in awe ... looking around at the beach, everything like that.
Are you getting a feel for the geography? If you wanted to go to, say, Hollywood, could you find your way?
I think. ... You would take ... I can get to Beverly Hills. I know that. That would be 405 north to 10 west, 10 east -- no ...
Ten east, yes.
Ten east. And basically you take Santa Monica Boulevard, it takes you kind of right there. I'm sure I could figure it out. ...
It's weird because I thought the highways were like ... usually odd-numbered interstates are north and south on the East Coast and evens are east and west, but it's completely different here. Like the 105 is east and west, and I thought that would be north. So, like, my East Coast judgment is off.
I get confused. And I just can't stand the traffic. That's the only thing that's been terrible.