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Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Valentin: Montreal a 'blessing in disguise'

By Scott French

Zarek Valentin
Zarek Valentin, left, says leaving Chivas USA for Montreal will reunite him with some ex-teammates and one of his best friends.

CARSON -- Zarek Valentin was supposed to be Chivas USA's right back of the future -- that was the plan when the club used the fourth selection in last year's MLS SuperDraft to acquire the teenage defender.

He showed a lot of promise (and the need for plenty of growth) in his rookie season, using the ample playing time provided by Goats coach Robin Fraser to begin transitioning from his natural position, center back. He was expected to take a big step forward on Chivas' backline in 2012.

Major League Soccer's often curious, not always transparent rules got in the way of that. All his playing time apparently cost Valentin his Generation adidas status, and by “graduating” from the developmental program, his cost-free existence -- he counted neither against Chivas' roster size nor its salary cap -- was gone.

His $80,000 salary had to absorbed, and, if left unprotected, he could be taken by Montreal in last November's expansion draft.

Voila!

“We're definitely disappointed to see Zarek go,” Fraser said after Montreal Impact coach Jesse Marsch, the former Chivas captain, snapped up Valentin. “He has a bright future for sure. You kind of wish expansion years didn't happen, but it's part of the league, and you're going to end up losing some players you don't want to lose. ... It's unfortunate, but it's a numbers game. I certainly wish we would not have lost him.”

Chivas' preseason camp opened in earnest Monday, with James Riley, acquired from Seattle via Montreal hours after Valentin's exit, set the take over at right back. Valentin, who will join Montreal's preparations on Feb. 1, was just a couple of hundred yards away, in the U.S. under-23 national team's preparations for the region's Olympic qualifiers.

ESPN Los Angeles spent a few minutes with Valentin over the weekend.

How long did it take to get used to the idea that you're a Montreal Impact player?

It kind of sunk in when I went up there for the jersey unveiling [on Dec. 1]. Once I got up there, I realized the fan support and got to meet some of the teammates and the coaches, and it was just kind of like, wow, this is actually changing [for me].

Even when I was packing up [my apartment in L.A.], it was still like, “Oh, I'm just going back home [to Lancaster, Pa.] for the winter.” I still really hasn't hit me. Once February rolls around, then I imagine it will start hitting me more.

Jesse Marsch played for Chivas. Did you get to know him around here?

He was still around, from what I know, with [former U.S. national team] coach [Bob] Bradley. We met a few times and crossed paths at Home Depot Center. Just little introductions. I know he was probably at a bunch of our games, just because he was a former player.

When he was with Chivas, he was the media's go-to guy in the locker room.

From what I've heard, he was basically the coach on the field. So I've heard good things of him. Even my brother [former Galaxy defender Julian Valentin] said it's going to translate on the field. He said, “You'll be tested in was that you probably didn't think were possible,” but it will all be good stuff.

Your Chivas teammates Justin Braun and Gerson Mayen also are with Montreal ...

It's almost starting to feel like home, because I've got a bunch of [friends]. There's two [University of] Akron guys there -- Sinisa Ubiparipovic and Evan Bush -- the two Chivas guys and, obviously, my longtime buddy Andrew Wenger [No. 1 draft choice, from Duke].

It already feels like home, which is the good thing. It's just a matter of finding a place and getting used to the team, the camaraderie and stuff like that. Which will come.

When did you find out Chivas didn't protect you for the expansion draft?

After coming home from Germany [after a postseason camp with the U-23s]. I found out [two days before the Nov. 23 draft], called around a little bit to see how it would go, and then the day before the pieces started to kind of fall into place, and then come [the 23rd] I had a new team.

You knew on the 22nd?

I knew that night I was probably going to be going. Or, actually, I was going. And I was really happy about it. It wasn't as much as a shock as probably people were expecting. I kind of knew it and eased into it.

Were you hurt that Chivas didn't protect you?

Not necessarily I was hurt. I just realized it's part of the business. And, obviously, people go through these kinds of things. I talked to Heath [Pearce, Chivas' backline leader] about it because he went through something a little similar at Dallas [before joining the Goats] ... where things were -- I want to find the right word -- misunderstood a little bit. I talked to him about transition, and he said you've got to take it with a grain of salt and go and prove your worth there.

Robin Fraser was very unhappy that the league had “graduated” you from Generation adidas -- that was the trigger to everything. Did you have any expectation you would “graduate”?

It didn't cross my mind at all. I know I got a lot of playing time [25 games, 24 starts, 2,114 minutes], and I wanted to keep progressing with Chivas, but things work out for whatever reason. I think it's a blessing in disguise, in all honesty. It's a little bit closer to home, I have a lot of friends, it's like a fresh new start -- it's almost like a second rookie season. And one of my best friends [Wenger] is coming on the team with me.

Obviously, I'm going to miss the So Cal stuff, the weather and things along that line, but I'm just excited for a new challenge.

What did you think of Montreal?

The city? Amazing. Very, very nice. Very European, which is cool. Because it's close to home, but it feels like I'm in Europe -- like I'm in Paris, France. I like that.

Are you learning French?

Slowly. I'm on, like, step two of my Rosetta Stone, which isn't bad. I can say a lot of the “he/she/them” stuff. Not “I” yet, which is really the most important ones. I can say, like, oh, “He wants a cup of coffee,” but I can't say I want a cup of coffee.

What were the greatest things you gained in your year with Chivas?

I think a lot of game exposure, which is the best thing. And within that, I'd just say recognizing danger. Obviously, the game was very fast, which is a matter of understanding and processing things a lot quicker and thinking one, two, three steps ahead.

A lot of [the gains were] defensively. Because these players can expose you if you're not an inch in the right spot. The defensive play is where I hopefully grew.

With Robin and assistants Greg Vanney and Carlos Llamosa, Chivas' staff has three former U.S. national team defenders. Was that a good situation to be in as a defender?

They're really supportive, and I think the opportunity at Montreal holds a lot of incentives. From what I've been told, Jesse is a very intense person. That's not a bad thing at all. He's very smart, and that's something I need to improve in my game.

I improved on my defending with Coach Robin and Coach Vanney, and now to support my game, I've got to develop a level of tenacity, and I think that's something that's going to flourish in Montreal. Jesse will bring that out of me.

You've been playing at center back with the U-23s. Do you feel more comfortable in the middle?

I think I do. I grew up as a center back my whole life, and I'm slowly transitioning to the right, and I feel a certain level at both. But I enjoy the responsibility at center back. Basically, your game is controlling other people. And I enjoy that.

In time, hopefully, I develop into a better center back.

Is the plan for you to play on the right in Montreal?

I don't know if they're 100 percent certain yet. I think I'll be on thr right. Whatever the team wants me to play, I'll be happy to be there.