TORONTO – In a fashion similar to his playing style – quiet and with little fanfare – Eriq Zavaleta has developed a reputation this season as somewhat of an iron man for Toronto FC.
Zavaleta has played in 14 of the Reds’ 15 games (13 as a starter) and racked up an impressive 1,189 minutes of playing time in Major League Soccer for TFC. Only captain Michael Bradley, with 1,260 minutes, has seen more MLS action this campaign.
While other defenders such as Drew Moor and Nick Hagglund have missed substantial time due to injury in 2017, Zavaleta has been the mainstay, playing with a variety of partners in a three-man back line to help Toronto to the third-best defensive record in the league.
Aside from his consistency, the young defender has shown how durable he can be, having only missed one MLS match – he was rested for the Reds’ 1-0 road win over Seattle on May 6 after receiving an injection into his hip.
There is now a poise and a maturity to his game that wasn’t necessarily there last year when he became a regular starter during the second half of the season and played a major role in the Reds’ run to the MLS Cup final.
“A lot of that comes down to confidence. I’m much more confident player in who I am this year. The success I’ve had and the success we’ve had has played a big part,” Zavaleta told Sportsnet.
“With confidence comes poise, and the ability to play games comfortably. I think I’ve taken a big step in that regard.”
Coach Greg Vanney, who is Zavaleta’s uncle, believes his nephew has shown tremendous growth in his development since the latter half of last season to become one of Toronto’s most important players at the back end.
“Last year Eriq was fighting to be a starter. This year he’s fighting not to be just a starter but to be one of the guys this team relies upon at the back, and one of the guys who can start to add more ability to lead from his position,” Vanney said.
A 24-year-old native of Indiana, Zavaleta’s workhorse reputation didn’t happen by accident. He’s managed to stay healthy and has been able to continually be called upon by Vanney through proper conditioning both on and off the field.
“Five years into the league, you finally learn how to take care of your body,” Zavaleta said. “I’ve recognized that I’m getting older, and while I still feel young, I have a lot of games under my belt. I’ve learned to manage myself off the field, I’ve learned to manage myself in training. It was one of my goals to come into this season knowing that I was going to be asked to play a lot of minutes to make sure that I could do that.”
That didn’t go unnoticed by TFC’s coach, who admitted, “Eriq came into this pre-season as fit as I’ve ever seen him.”
Vanney later added: “Eriq is one of the best open-field, one-on-one defenders in this league. He’s been able to manage some of the best attacking players in MLS.”
Zavaleta credits not only his hard work, but the faith that Vanney and his assistant coaches have shown in him for his elevated standard of play this season.
“It’s my job to continue to repay that faith and show them I deserve those chances,” he said.
There are, however, still growth opportunities for the defender. Vanney would like to see him become more of a vocal leader on the pitch by sharing his insight into the game with his fellow defenders in order to better handle difficult situations.
“You can talk to Eriq all day about what he saw in the game, and why he made a certain decision,” Vanney explained. “He’s very, very insightful, he reads the game very well, and he sees situations very well. Now the next step is for him to see them and communicate them to others around him in order to properly position things, and not just deal with stuff by himself.
“When you’re younger, you’re just worrying about doing your job. Whereas with a veteran like Drew, you get more experience and you worry about your job, but also extend your ability to help move others around. That’s a growth area for Eriq.”
Vanney also thinks his nephew can add a more offensive element to his game, and play a bigger role in building the team’s attack out from the back.
“I’d like to see him be able to initiate some of our attacks and find different ways of increasing the range of some of his passing to open up the weak side when the strong side is being close down,” Vanney said.