By DAN KARELL
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Eriq Zavaleta could not stop scoring goals.
That was the best way to describe Zavaleta’s sophomore season in college, at Indiana University. The 6-foot-1, 185 pound center forward terrorized college defense to the tune of 18 goals in 24 matches in 2012, leading Indiana to a national title in the process, while parlaying that success into an MLS contract and first-round selection in the 2013 MLS draft by the Seattle Sounders.
Some two years after being that unstoppable college forward, Zavaleta has seen his career transition to a new position, where his job is now to try and prevent goals rather than score them. Now used predominantly as a central defender, Zavaleta has been fully taking advantage of his intra-league loan move to Chivas USA.
Last Saturday, Zavaleta returned to the Chivas USA starting lineup following a four-game absence, slotting in at centerback alongside Andrew Jean-Baptiste. And though Chivas USA fell apart defensively in the second half, Zavaleta showed improved awareness and confidence as he adjusts to the new position.
“I think its been great,” Zavaleta told SBI, regarding the transition. “I’ve been very confident, it’s the best I feel I’ve been playing in my life, and I’ve been rewarded with games for that. It’s been a learning year for me but a year certainly that I feel like I’ve gotten better as games have gone by, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Since joining Chivas USA late last February, Zavaleta has played in 12 MLS games, with 11 starts, and made the game day roster on 13 other occasions this season. Each of these appearances has been along the backline, giving him the experience he needs to grow into the position.
Zavaleta’s move to central defense wasn’t exactly a shocking one. While he did enjoy success as a college forward, he had also previously spent time with U.S. youth national teams as a central defender, and projected to more likely be a centerback as a pro than forward.
The loan to Chivas USA has helped Zavaleta earn some valuable playing time to help him adjust to the centerback position fully, and considering Chivas USA’s struggles defensively the past few years, Zavaleta has been thrown into a “sink or swim” situation where he has had to adjust and improve over a small span of time.
“We defend a lot of the time here, and you learn a lot from that,” Zavaleta said.
Chivas USA may be a young team throughout most of the lineup, but luckily for Zavaleta, one area there is plenty of experience in is central defense. Zavaleta has had the opportunity to learn this season from fellow centerbacks Bobby Burling and former U.S. Men’s National Team captain Carlos Bocanegra.
Bocanegra, who announced that he will retire at the end of the season, has given Zavaleta a chance to see up close what it takes to play at the highest levels of the professional and international game.
“The thing with Carlos that (makes him) so special is that he’s almost like a coach on the field,” Zavaleta said. “His leadership is incredible, his communication is very good, and as a centerback you need to be the voice of the team, and he does that. That’s something I try to pick up from him, little subtle things he does that makes him a very good player and has been for such a long time. He’s been able to have such a long and successful career, and young players like I, we look to those guys for advice and he’s done a great job.”
It’s fitting that Zavaleta returned to the starting lineup to face a club that he has extensive history with.
The 22-year-old Westfield, Indiana native spent the summer of 2011 playing with the Columbus Crew U-20 team, winning the USL Super-20 championship. In addition, whenever his uncle, current Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney, was in town, Zavaleta and his father would come to Crew Stadium to see him.
With it being a relatively close venue to home and having friends and family on hand to watch, Zavaleta called his return to Columbus a “cool experience.”
“I came up here watching my uncle Greg Vanney come play games all the time and I have memories as a little kid watching of watching the national team and watching Crew games,” Zavaleta said. “To be honest, the announcer here is the voice of MLS for me because I watched the Crew so many times when I was a young player.
“It’s my second time being here as a pro, but my first time playing and starting. It was difficult to have the result that we had, but I’m sure that I’ll be here again.”