Growing up in the American soccer scene, Zarek Valentin had heard all about the American dream of plying his trade in a European league. For years, Europe has been the promised land, a place where American players can make their name among the very best while earning a comfortable living playing a sport they love.
Yet, after two years abroad as a member of Norway’s FK Bodø/Glimt, Valentin realized that, at least in his eyes, the American dream has shifted, prompting a return to a league he missed so very much.
Following a stint Norway that saw Valentin help push Bodø/Glimt to promotion to the Tippeligaen, the 24-year-old defender has returned home as a member of the Portland Timbers as a much different player than the one that went abroad in March 2013. Yet, despite finding himself thousands of miles from home in a country very different than his own, Valentin made sure he never truly felt too far away.
“Once I left, I always followed the league,” Valentin told SBI. “I watched games as much as possible. I waited for Saturday and Sunday nights when they had the later games come on so I could watch all of the teams play. Toronto and Portland were the teams I saw most consistently. Portland had a lot of late games, which was 11 at night for me, so I could catch the late ones. Toronto played a lot of four or five o’clock games in their time, so I could catch those because most teams play around two or three in the morning.
“The MLS is becoming more and more desirable. I went over to Europe and had a fun experience there, but I always kept MLS in mind in terms of coming back. Luckily, I fell into a very good situation.”
Valentin’s experience in Europe was one that turned out to be unlike anything he could have expected.
Originally drafted by Chivas USA in 2011, Valentin was acquired by the Montreal Impact ahead of the club’s inaugural season in MLS. Shortly into his second year with the club, the defender was loaned to Bodø/Glimt and helped push the club to promotion in his debut season.
From there, the move was made permanent, as Valentin became a regular contributor to the club. Throughout his 61-game stint, Valentin adjusted to a country that he is quick to say is the most beautiful he has experienced. Meanwhile, Valentin kept a familiar feel, reuniting with fellow expats like Cole Grossman, Bobby Warshaw and Rhett Bernstein whenever they could cross paths throughout their busy club schedules.
At the time, staying with Bodø/Glimt was Valentin’s best option at improving with a coach and system that fit his game. Specifically, Valentin says he became faster in thought, as the Norwegian game pushed him to react quicker on both the attacking and defensive ends.
But, after a stint away from home that lasted much longer than he originally imagined, Valentin yearned for a return. Newly engaged and enamored with the American game, Valentin knew it was the right time to make a move back to MLS.
“As you live abroad, no matter what country you’re in or if you’re in a big city or whatever it might be, as an American, and I’ve told players this, I feel that a lot of the American dream to go to Europe is slowly dying,” Valentin said. “When I grew up, that was the mecca. It was the be all, end all if you could make it to Europe and play in Norway or Denmark or France or this or that. That was the place to be, but the more you spend time abroad and the more the league continues to grow and bring in better players, the league is rivaling some of the best leagues in Europe.
“MLS beats out a lot of European leagues. It’s really improving and that’s where that initial desire to come back came from because you go there and you realize that I could probably stay at home, be closer to family, live in a beautiful city like Portland and still make a decent living from this while the level is just as good as a lot of places in Europe. Why chase this dream that we grow up with when the home league is growing at an incredible rate? It’s hard to argue that. Players abroad are really recognizing it and understanding what’s going on here. MLS is turning into something special.”
In particular, Portland was seen as a special landing spot for Valentin, for more reasons than one.
Coming off of the club’s first MLS Cup crown, the Timbers have established themselves as one of the premier destinations in North America, Valentin says. Playing in front of passionate fans like the Timbers Army with a consistently competitive team, Valentin thought the idea of playing for the Timbers made the most sense, despite interest from several other MLS teams.
Perhaps the biggest thing that the Timbers had going for them, though, was their coach.
As a high school junior, Valentin was introduced to Timbers coach Caleb Porter, then in charge at Akron University. Immediately, Valentin was struck by the coach’s passion for the game and his players, prompting a two-year stay with the Zips that yielded a national championship victory in 2010.
Now, six years later, Valentin has been given another chance to feature for a man he still affectionately calls “Coach Porter” and a man that has seen him grow from wide-eyed high school star to European soccer veteran.
“I think (the move to Norway) was the best thing that happened to him because, ultimately, I think he wanted to be in the U.S. and MLS,” Porter told SBI, “but he needed to prove that he can get back there. I’ve noticed he’s matured a lot tactically, mentally and just overall as a professional. Being overseas does that to players because your friends, your family, they’re not around. You just need to focus on being a pro and he did very well over there.
“No one handed anything to him. He had to work for it and earn it and I think it shows the character. I see just a little bit more seasoning on his game and as a professional and how he looks at the job.”
Valentin’s new job is to assert himself as a starter for a Timbers team that features plenty of competition.
Competing against friend and former residency teammate Chris Klute, Valentin is tasked with locking down the fullback position vacated by Jorge Villafaña. A versatile defender by trade, Valentin says that he enjoys the attacking freedom of playing fullback just as much as the “chess match” that comes with holding down the centerback position.
As a fullback, Valentin says that he is looking forward to the challenges of facing wingers like Ethan Finlay and Fabian Castillo, players that will test him in ways he has yet to be tested.
Now home and in a situation that is virtually ideal, Valentin is looking forward to those tests as he achieves his American dream of making his name in his home country.
“It’s one of those things where it was a perfect storm of things coming together,” Valentin said. “I think Portland is becoming one of those markets where, if they’re interested and willing to trade whatever it might be to get you, it’s hard for a player to say ‘no.’
“I think it’s a combination of the city, the fans, that prior relationship with the coach, and that makes a perfect storm of things coming together. I’m lucky that things happened pretty smoothly and I couldn’t be more excited to have that process done with. It was stressful at times, but overall, a very exciting move for me personally.”