Toronto FC’s road game against the Seattle Sounders on Saturday marks a homecoming of sorts for Eriq Zavaleta.
Zavaleta is in line to see his first MLS action of the 2019 campaign for TFC, with veteran defender Drew Moor (groin) and Brazilian fullback Auro Jr. (minor hamstring strain) ruled out.
It’d be apropos if Zavaleta made his season debut on Saturday, as Seattle is where he began his professional soccer journey after being selected 10th overall by the Sounders at the 2013 MLS SuperDraft.
Unfortunately, the man responsible for drafting Zavaleta is no longer with us. Former Seattle coach Sigi Schmid, who last managed the LA Galaxy, died on Dec. 25, 2018 while in intensive care at a California hospital awaiting a heart transplant. He was 65.
Zavaleta played only five games under Schmid before Seattle traded him to Toronto prior to the 2015 season. Still, the TFC defender has fond memories of his former manager, who is the all-time leader in wins by an MLS coach with 266.
“He was somebody who cared a lot about his players, always tried to be a good person, and tried not to let the game interfere with that. He had such passion for the sort, and played a big part in helping to grow the sport in the U.S.,” Zavaleta told Sportsnet.
“He touched so many lives. He gave me and so many others their first chance in this league, my first opportunity, and I’ll always be grateful for that.”
A two-time coach of the year in the league who won MLS Cups with the LA Galaxy (in 2002) and Columbus Crew (2008), Schmid’s influence still looms large in the league, from the teams he built, to the players he worked with and inspired to follow in his footsteps. Current TFC coach Greg Vanney, who is also Zavaleta’s uncle, played college soccer under Schmid at UCLA and later in MLS with the Galaxy.
Shortly after Schmid’s death, MLS renamed the coach of the year award after him, just recognition for someone who helped to shape the league into what it has become today.
“He was very good at evaluating and finding talent, and putting a good roster together and he had success in Columbus, Seattle and L.A. because of it,” Zavaleta offered.
“He liked to focus and pay attention to the defenders and midfielders, and let the attackers be who they were, let them follow their instincts. He was a coach who if you were playing for him, he was firmly in your corner and didn’t waver in his support.”
Zavaleta had high hopes when he first joined the Sounders out of university. Schmid and his father Carlos Zavaleta were teammates at UCLA during their playing days, and the fact Seattle’s coach drafted him led Zavaleta to believe that he was going to be a key member of an ambitious Sounders side with championship aspirations who played before large home crowds at CenturyLink Field.
But Zavaleta, a promising prospect out of the University of Indiana, never caught on with Sounders. Twice he was sent out on loan, to the now-defunct Chivas USA and the San Antonio Scorpions of the second-tier NASL. After his stint with Chivas ended following the 2014 season, Schmid started shopping him around and traded him to Toronto prior to the 2015 MLS campaign, bringing an end to his ill-fated tenure with the Sounders.
What happened in Seattle? Schmid 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.
“All coaches have their own vision of each player, what they see for them, what they think their strengths and challenges are. For me, Sigi really wanted to develop me as forward and I was his project. He saw something in me in that position,” Zavaleta said.
It wasn’t to be, though, and the difference in opinion over what exactly was Zavaleta’s best position led to his departure from Seattle.
But the disagreement between the parties was respectful, and Schmid went out of his way to trade Zavaleta to Toronto, his preferred destination, even though other MLS clubs expressed an interest in him.
Even before that, when Schmid was considering sending Zavaleta out on loan for the second time, there was interest from Indy 11 of the second-tier NASL. Zavaleta did not want to drop down to a lower league again after previously going on loan with San Antonio, and Schmid worked the phones and secured him a loan Chivas USA that allowed him to stay in MLS.
Both instances illustrate that Schmid was not someone who held grudges, and Zavaleta remembers his acts of kindness to this day.
“There’s something to be said about Sigi, and the fact that he traded me [to TFC]. I’m sure other MLS teams were interested, but he knew I wanted to play for Greg [Vanney]. I’ve been fortunate for the last five years to be in the position I’m in here in Toronto, and it’s because of Sigi. He always tried to do right by his players,” Zavaleta offered.
“It said a lot about his character, that he was not stubborn after things not working out, and allowed me to make the move that I felt was best for myself. It ended up being the best thing for me.”
Zavaleta was a key member of TFC’s treble-winning side in 2017, starting 29 games during the regular season and making another four appearances during the Reds’ MLS Cup playoff run.
Zavaleta’s brief time playing under Schmid helped set him up for success in Toronto.
“I think what I learned from Sigi more than anything was how to win in MLS. I found out what it took both on and off the field to succeed in this league. If there’s anything that can be said about Sigi, it’s that he knew how to win, and he passed that on to everybody who played for him,” Zavaleta offered.