Photo courtesy of Indiana University Athletics
By JOSE M. ROMERO
Eriq Zavaleta was just a high school freshman in Westfield, Ind., when he made a pretty big decision for a kid his age. He decided to leave high school and go to Bradenton, Fla., to train in the U.S. Soccer U-17 national team residency program.
That decision has taken Zavaleta, now 20, to “15 or 16 countries” as a player for his country. It also brought a change in position, from forward to defender for the U.S.
After two years away from home, Zavaleta returned to Indiana, where he played his senior year of high school.
“I wanted to give my friends and family the opportunity to see me play,” Zavaleta said.
And he’s now back at forward, the leading scorer for Indiana University, the 10th-ranked program in SBI’s college soccer rankings.
“I think I can go either way,” Zavaleta said. “I like aspects of both positions.”
Forward seems to be working out just fine. Zavaleta, a sophomore, entered Friday as the Big Ten goal-scoring leader with 13 and has six goals in his last four games for the Hoosiers (10-2-2).
“Eriq was an attacker during his developmental years and was converted to the back line during his stint with the (U-)17’s,” Indiana coach Tood Yeagley said. “He is a good defender, however, his soccer IQ, soft feet and excellent finishing technique make him very dangerous in the box. I feel his versatility makes him a special player.”
Zavaleta already has an impressive resume for when he decides to turn professional. Aside from the national team program, he’s played with the Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA academies — his uncle, former U.S. national team player Greg Vanney, has been affiliated with both — and played in the U-17 World Cup. He’s also played with the Columbus Crew academy and is in the player pool for the U.S. U-20 national team.
Zavaleta was asked about what kind of professional opportunity he seeks.
“I’m open to any situation. I’m just looking for the best situation for me,” he said. “A team that cares about their younger players and develops them.”
The last name is reflective of Zavaleta’s Salvadoran heritage. His father, Carlos, is from El Salvador, but Zavaleta calls himself “American born and bred” and hopes to play for the U.S., though El Salvador’s federation has expressed interest in him.
“Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a soccer ball at my feet,” Zavaleta said, remembering when he used to watch his dad play in adult recreational leagues.
These days, Zavaleta and his teammates are hopeful of another national championship for IU. They draw inspiration from former strength and conditioning coach Tom Morris, who in May was paralyzed from the waist down after a biking accident.
Zavaleta paid tribute to Morris with a T-shirt he displayed during a recent goal celebration, and has helped to raise money to aid in Morris’ rehabilitation efforts.
“Tom preached to me to be better in the weight room,” Zavaleta said. “With his accident, it’s difficult for us to see him because he’s incapable of doing some the things he used to do. So I honored him with the goal celebration, and we’ve set up fundraisers in preseason and after the accident to help pay his medical bills.”