TORONTO – If Eriq Zavaleta puts in a man-of-the-match performance or scores the winning goal in Saturday’s MLS Cup final, the Seattle Sounders will only have themselves to blame.
A defender and key starter for Toronto FC over the past two seasons, Zavaleta admits he learned how to be a winner with the Sounders before being traded to the Reds and that his brief time in Seattle set him up for success in Toronto.
Zavaleta, 25, was selected 10th overall in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, coincidentally with a pick the Sounders acquired in a trade with TFC earlier in the day. It was a special moment for the defender because of a personal connection to Seattle’s Sigi Schmid, who coached his father, Carlos, at UCLA — to say nothing of the fact that the Sounders were an ambitious team with championship aspirations who played before large home crowds.
But Zavaleta, a promising prospect out of the University of Indiana, ended up making just five appearances for the Sounders. Twice he was sent out on loan to the now-defunct Chivas USA, and to the San Antonio Scorpions of the second-tier NASL. After his loan stint with Chivas ended following the 2014 season, Seattle started shopping him around and traded him to Toronto prior to the 2015 MLS season, bringing an end to his ill-fated tenure with the West Coast club.
What happened with the Sounders? The main issue was a difference of opinion as to what exactly was his best position. Seattle wanted to use him up front — Zavaleta enjoyed a standout NCAA career as a forward, helping the Hoosiers win a national title in 2012. But Zavaleta, who had experience playing as a defender in his youth, saw his future as a centre back. He fell out of favour, and was eventually dealt to Toronto.
“Ultimately, Seattle was a club that is similar to [Toronto] in that they had championship aspirations and they had a ‘win now’ mentality, and I wasn’t a part of those plans. I wasn’t fortunate enough to get as many games, as many minutes, as many moments, as many experiences as I would have liked with the Sounders,” Zavaleta told Sportsnet.
“But my time there allowed me to be where I am today, so I’m thankful for that. I’m thankful that I went to an organization that was ‘win now’ because it taught me what that was like, and that set me up for success when I came to Toronto. By the time I got here, I was ready and able to step in and be part of a winning organization, and be a driving force on the pitch in a team that wants to win.”
After getting his feet wet in his first year in Toronto, Zavaleta came into his own last year. He established himself as a regular starter during the second half of the season and started all six games in the Reds’ playoff run to the 2016 MLS Cup final.
It’s been more of the same this season for Zavaleta, who started 27 games, most of them to the right of veteran Drew Moor in Toronto’s three-man defence. He’s been an iron man of sorts, racking up 2,356 minutes of playing time in the regular season – behind only captain Michael Bradley, Justin Morrow and Victor Vazquez – and been one of TFC’s most reliable and consistent contributors.
“When I first got here, I didn’t think so much about the minutes I was going to play; it was more about how do I win and how do we win,” Zavaleta offered.
He’s grown and matured with TFC, to the point where he now bears no ill will towards Seattle. It wasn’t always the case – Zavaleta complained that the Sounders “sort of gave up on me” when speaking to reporters ahead of last year’s MLS Cup final.
Twelve months on, he’s in a much different place, more philosophical – and appreciative – of his time in Seattle.
“I don’t necessarily have a bad taste in my mouth. There’s some different experiences that I wished I got in Seattle. But I learned from it,” Zavaleta admitted.
“I’m a big believer if that you have to take every experience, you take every year as a building block to the next one. There should be no wasted years, no wasted time. Even if you’re not playing and sitting towards the end of the bench, there’s people you can learn from. I’ve started to succeed in my career because of that – because I’ve observed and studied people ahead of me, because I’ve seen how it was done, because I’ve learned from what was in front of me.
“While I wasn’t getting the [playing time] I wanted in Seattle, I still had some really bright and talented people to learn from there.”
One such person is Clint Dempsey, one of Seattle’s three designated players and the Sounders’ second all-time leading scorer. Dempsey took an interest in Zavaleta during his rookie year, and the two became close friends.
“I was very good friends with Clint, and I actually lived in his guest house when I was there. He’s a great guy and an incredible family man with four kids, and guy who just wants to win. It’ll be fun to line up against him on Saturday,” Zavaleta said.