Featured / MLS

After LA and the Arctic Circle, Lancaster’s Zarek Valentin has found a home in Portland

Photo courtesy of the Portland Timbers

Zarek Valentin and Portland Timbers teammate Diego Chara worked off to the side during a recent training session. The two were chatting about the important things — buying houses and building families.

They’d grown close over the past three and a years. They’d been through the highs of finishing at the top of the Western Conference and the lows of falling short in the MLS Cup Final.

After all, it had been a long time since a tackle from the ferocious midfielder had cost Valentin a month of his second MLS season back in 2012.

“He’s an incredible guy,” the Portland right back told PSP, “but I still got a little scar tissue in my right calf because of good, old Diego Chara.”

The Colombian might have also asked Valentin about their upcoming game against Philadelphia Union. So many in the organization had already done so.

For Valentin, Saturday’s match is more than just the last of 13 consecutive road games to start the year. The Lancaster, Pa. native will return to the City of Brotherly Love for the first time since that 2012 season.

Joining the Chivas USA cult

Zarek Valentin was feeling good.

On the heels of his NCAA Championship-winning season at Akron, he’d been drafted fourth overall in the 2011 MLS Superdraft by Chivas USA. Valentin was heading to Hollywood to play professional soccer.

“Chivas has turned into a little MLS cult if you’ve played on the team,” Valentin said of his time in southern California. “We had a lot of incredible veterans that really helped my development and worked with me as I grew as a player. I’d get crushed at times, but ultimately I grew a lot from it.”

Photo courtesy MLS

In his rookie season, Valentin was on the same field as Heath Pearce, Alejandro Moreno, and Juan Pablo Angel. Overall, the Manheim Township High School graduate started 24 games for Chivas that year. Head coach Robin Fraser and assistant Greg Vanney gave him an opportunity not many 19-year-olds get.

“I played more than I probably should have, but it was nice to have a team commit to such a young player and allow them to make mistakes,” Valentin said. “With the way budgets are in MLS, you don’t see that a lot in the league anymore.”

Despite the successful debut, Valentin experienced firsthand the type of organizational flaws that led to Chivas USA folding after the 2014 season.

“Everyone always has these funny stories.”

Valentin was no exception.

A typical Chivas mistake leads to Montreal

Twenty days after Chivas’ season ended, MLS newcomers Montreal Impact would make their selections in the league’s 2011 expansion draft. Each existing team was able to protect 11 players on their roster. Valentin was not on Chivas’s list— much to the surprise of Fraser.

“I found out it was a mistake within Chivas’ upper management,” Valentin recalled. “It was like a microcosm of the organization, but it wasn’t a coaching staff thing. Upper management had flubbed some numbers which is why I was left unprotected, and I shouldn’t have been.”

Fraser called his player and apologized, knowing he wasn’t going to be on the 2012 iteration of the Goats. Valentin’s agent also knew within two minutes of hearing about the gaffe that his client would be playing in a different country the following season.

But it wasn’t done and dusted. The Impact’s first-ever coach, Jesse Marsch, wanted to hear from Valentin before selecting the defender.

“Full disclosure, if you don’t want to come, I’m not going to take you,” Valentin recalled Marsch saying. “I don’t want to bring guys here that don’t want to be here. Now, would you like to come?”

Valentin asked if he could think about it. First, he called his agent. Then he called his soon-to-be-former teammate and Canadian international Ante Jazic. The Nova Scotia native raved about Montreal. That’s all Valentin needed to hear. He was chosen by the Impact in the second round of the expansion draft a few days later.

Accepting Marsch’s offer to play in Montreal in 2012-2013 was the best decision Valentin would make. Montreal didn’t go perfectly on the soccer front, but it is where he would meet his wife.

Soccer in the Arctic

The 2015 Norwegian soccer season was reaching a close. August gave way to September, and Zarek Valentin had helped FK Bodø/Glimt win eight of their last nine matches.

His soon-to-be spouse was on another continent, and Skype wasn’t really doing the trick anymore.

It was time to move on.

Three years had passed since he joined the Norwegian club after a challenging and injury-plagued year in Canada. With time to reflect, he could appreciate then what he didn’t get earlier.

“I really respect Jesse Marsch for treating me more as an adult,” Valentin said of his former coach. “Jesse treated me as an older player. In the moment, it was very hard to deal with because I was held accountable for things that were very tough. I’ve had conversations with Jesse since and thanked him.”

In Los Angeles, Valentin was a 19-year-old rookie with not much to do off the field besides playing video games. In Montreal, he was a 20-year-old in a city where the drinking age was 18.

“Jesse was saying this is fine,” Valentin said, recalling the message he received from his former manager. “You’re a professional. You can do what you like, but first and foremost you need to perform to the highest of your abilities.”

Valentin credits Marsch for helping him find the balance in his professional and personal life. It helped him transition from being a kid to who he he is now.

Marsch, though would not be around, for the 2013 season in Montreal. The Impact and the coach mutually parted ways after their inaugural season. In January of the following year, Swiss manager Marco Schallibaum was appointed Montreal’s manager. Schallibaum made it clear Valentin no longer had a place in his side.

“I wanted to play and needed minutes,” said Valentin. “Kudos to Schallibaum, who was basically saying, ‘you’re not going to play, so lets try to find you a situation.'”

Back in 2011, Jan Halvor Halvorsen was an assistant coach with New York Red Bulls, and he scouted a certain defender out of Akron. In 2013, he was named as manager of FK Bodø/Glimt, and he was looking for a right back.

Photo courtesy Bodø/Glimt

“I was obviously very scared— let’s just say that— to go,” Valentin said. “It was one of those things where life presents you with an option, and you have to do that. Who knows, it popped up out of the blue, and it ended up being an incredible situation.”

Valentin had lived in Los Angeles and Montreal. Now, he was heading to a Norwegian fishing village in the Arctic Circle with a population of 10,000 fewer people than that of Lancaster.

The preseasons in Bodø were brutal, with just 30 minutes of sunlight each day. But there was also the midnight sun of summer. Valentin could have stayed in his room. Instead, he dove into the culture of the tiny community. He mastered Norwegian, adding a fourth language to his toolbox. He took cruises of the Arctic Circle and saw the Northern Lights. He visited reindeer farms and hiked difficult mountains the locals would call “hills.”

“We would have such simple things that kept us busy,” Valentin recalled. “We had a 4 pm coffee hour every single day in our favorite coffee shop. We’d be there for two hours and then go back and have dinner. Met some of the nicest people you’ll meet, and it was just incredible to go and live there, enjoying the simplicity of life.”

In that final year in Norway, he found some company. Former Philadelphia Union winger Danny Cruz joined the club. Valentin had a partner with whom to watch his beloved Philadelphia Eagles play at 3 am local time.

Valentin decided it was time to move on in August, and he remembered a conversation with a friend, current Columbus Crew assistant coach Pablo Moreira.

“I want to be the first person to know if you ever even consider about coming back to MLS,” Valentin recalled Moreira saying.

Valentin texted him, “I want to be closer to home, closer to my fiancé.”

It didn’t take long for his agent to reach out with a new opportunity. Portland was interested. They were managed by the man who led Akron to the title back in 2010, Caleb Porter. Valentin’s former teammates Darlington Nagbe and Ben Zemanski were already there.

It was the perfect fit. He’s been a significant contributor to Portland’s clubs ever since.

Coming home

Valentin is looking forward to Portland’s game against the Union game this weekend.

“It’s always special getting to play in Philly,” he said. “I enjoy getting a bunch of crap from their fans. It’s fun for me, but it’s all about getting points— as corny as that sounds.”

It won’t be all jeers at Talen Energy Stadium this Saturday. Valentin admitted a healthy collection of friends and family are making the trip from Lancaster.

He’s returning to where he grew up, but it’s no longer home. Valentin and his wife are expecting their first child this September.

“This is home for us,” said Valentin of Portland. “I’m super excited to be a part of it, and hopefully we’ll stay here for a decent amount of time.”

2 Comments

  1. Lovely piece, Nick. Had no idea young Valentin has had such a journey. Soccer beyond the Arctic Circle is almost as mind-blowing as Chivas USA’s incompetence…

  2. HopkinsMD says:

    Such an interesting story. Inspiring… What a journey!

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