Catching up with Montréal Impact defender and Lancaster, Pa., native Zarek Valentin
Valentin was selected by the Impact in their expansion draft this past winter, and he has had an up-and-down season on the field so far.
Catching up with Montréal Impact defender and Lancaster, Pa., native Zarek Valentin
CORRECTION: I screwed up the intro to this. Valentin has been playing right back for the Impact, not left back. So while Tyson Wahl's departure affects him, it doesn't so so as much as I first thought. Apologies for not having done my homework.
When I went out west for the opening weekend of the Major League Soccer season, I packed one of those Philly.com microphone flags that you see in our videos.
I had it with me in Vancouver to cover the Montréal Impact's first ever game in MLS. When I got into the Impact's locker room after the final whistle, I heard someone behind me shout "Hey, Philly.com! I know that site!"
The accent was unmistakably Philadelphian. I wasn't quite sure who it was, but I knew the Impact's roster well enough to be certain that it could be only one of two people: Lititz, Pa., native Andrew Wenger or Lancaster native Zarek Valentin.
I happened to be facing Wenger at that particular moment. So the answer was clear. And thus did I get introduced to Valentin for the first time.
I certainly had known of the defender before that day, but I had never met him. Valentin is very active on Twitter, and isn't afraid to make his love for Philly sports teams known despite being in enemy territory.
Valentin was selected by the Impact in their expansion draft this past winter, and he has had an up-and-down season on the field so far. He has started all 12 of the games in which he has appeared, but the Impact have played 20 games total this year.
Seven of Valentin's starts have come in the Impact's last seven games, and in Montréal's most recent contest he scored the winning goal in a 2-1 home victory over Columbus.
But despite that consistency, Valentin's place in the lineup might be under threat again. The Impact traded their other left back, Tyson Wahl, to Colorado in order to bring in Swiss defender Dennis Iapichino. He's with the team in Philadelphia this weekend.
Even if Iapichino doesn't play against the Union, the Impact's desire to appeal to Montréal's vast European expatriate community could threaten Valentin's place in the lineup.
For now, though, Valentin is in the spotlight.
Valentin will have to have a big section of family and friends at PPL Park tonight - in the hundreds, he told me - and he is relishing the chance to be as close to home as it gets in MLS.
I spent a few minutes chatting with Valentin at the team hotel Friday evening. Here's a transcript of our conversation.
How does it feel to be so close to home?
I was pretty excited when we drove on I-95 past the Linc and the Wells Fargo Center. I was smiling looking around the whole complex.
People will probably say, "Oh, you're a Union supporter," but the Union wasn't really around when I was growing up. It was D.C. when the league was first around when I was in that area. I would have supported [the Union] but I wasn't really a Union fan because they only came to be when I was leaving school.
It's nice to be in my general home area. I'll be seeing a lot of family and friends.
Will they be at the game?
Yeah. My mother threw out a number between 350 and 400 or 500. A good section.
Wearing Impact jerseys, or would they be coming anyway?
I think they'll be coming in blue. I'm not really sure - I think they're just coming to support me. Which obviously means the world. We'll see. Like I said, it's amazing to have that support, but at the end of the day it's just business, trying to get a win.
I follow you on Twitter, so I've seen some of your tweets about life in Montréal. What do you make of the city so far?
I love Montréal. Winter is brutal - absolutely brutal. I thought winters in Ohio* and the Northeast were brutal, but they're nothing compared to what we have in Montréal. And supposedly we had a warm winter. So that's obviously one of the lower points, but the city is amazing. I live in the Old Port, and it's beautiful.
* - Valentin played college soccer at Akron. More on that below.
How's your French? I know you and Andrew Wenger have been trying to learn it.
It's tough. I can say a lot of random things, but nothing that really pertains to a conversation. It's slowly coming, and I've just got to start practicing more with teammates and stuff like that. It's a lot more difficult than you'd think.
You've got the opportunity now to play alongside Alessandro Nesta. What have you seen from him? Have you talked to him much, and what's it going to be like when he steps out on the field for the Impact?
It's a real advantage that I have, to play alongside someone who has played at the highest level. He's been in Champions Leagues, he's been in World Cups. So it's something that I have to use to my advantage and just soak up as much information as I can.
He's getting fit right now, so he's not playing as much he probably would, but once he gets out on the field I think there will be lessons learned, and the experience will be an invaluable resource.
I scored a goal last week, so maybe I can show him a little something about that [he said sarcastically].
I was going to ask about that game-tying goal at Columbus last Saturday. How did it feel?
It's nothing without winning the game. If we hadn't won the game and I had scored I wouldn't have cared. I would have been upset and angry. But the fact that we won the game makes it even more special.
I'm happier that we won the game than actually getting in a goal, in all honesty.
How has your relationship been with manager Jesse Marsch so far?
Jesse has been great. I think he has helped me add a certain aspect of tenacity, and a fight to my game that I didn't have before I came here. So in that aspect it has been good, and we're just trying as a team to get on a roll here as we lead up to the 2/3-mark of the season.
That said, there has been a lot of player movement with the Impact in the last few weeks. What has it been like for you watching so many guys come in and so many guys go out?
You really try not to focus on it. I realize that I left my first team. I realize that this business, you've got to just go out there and do your thing, and hope that your team does its best. Because usually at the end of the day, the better the team does, the more players stay put, but you tend to just not think about it.
You try to just worry about fitting well into the team, playing well, doing well, and let the chips fall where they may. If you leave, you get another opportunity, but if you stay, then you've just got to keep working your butt off for the team.
As you watch guys around the league who went to Akron - Seattle's Steve Zakuani, Vancouver's Darren Mattocks and D.C.'s Perry Kitchen most notably - what does it say about that program that so many guys from there have done so well in MLS?
It helps you prepare a lot. One thing it doesn't get credit for is preparation off the field. I think that guys learn how to be really good pros off the field at the school. I know I learned that, and I think other guys will attest to that. I think it shows well for the program, and hopefully will get it more recognition.
I know the history may not be as deep or as rich as other teams'. But it's one of, if not the, top programs in the country, and I think people are starting to notice. They're like "Oh, Akron, that school's pretty good at soccer." It's nice to start hearing that.
Speaking of the Akron connection, Caleb Porter was the coach of the U.S. Under-23 team you were on that failed to qualify for the Olympics. How much of that is still on your mind and what did you learn from it? As the Olympics approach now, do you think about it at all?
Of course you're going to think about it. It's really a tough pill to swallow when you see TV commercials and articles and people's preparation. But at the end of the day, you have to learn lessons.
I think our whole team will say that maybe we were naive in some aspects, but we've just got to go out there and learn from those lessons, and use them to hopefully do better with the national team in the future.
I'm not saying I'm going to play [at that level] in the future, but some guys are already playing with the [senior] national team, and I think they are going to learn the lessons of not qualifying - whether personally or on a team basis - to prepare themselves and maybe pass on lessons to other players.
But it's definitely tough.
One more question. As you've watched Freddy Adu this year, both as a teammate and from afar, what have you made of his season?
I think he's really playing almost - not with a point to prove, but I think people have almost looked past him at some point, thinking that he's been around a little bit. But I think he's playing unbelievably right now.
He's been a close family friend for a long time, because he went to [U.S. Soccer's] residency program with my younger brother, Julian. There was once a big joke that he was going to marry my little sister.
He's killing it right now, and he has really helped inspire his team to change their season around. I know it's been tough since the beginning of the season, but he has really been one of the catalysts of their attack. I have a lot of respect for what he's done. If I go against him, if he's on my side, or whatever it might be, it's going to be tough.