Former LA Galaxy player, NCAA Champion & brother Julian Valentin writing for TSG
You can follow Julian on Twitter here
January 13, 2011.
Zarek and I certainly didn’t plan it that day, but we ended up wearing the same black suit–the buy one, get one half off special from Men’s Warehouse. I’d had mine for a year or so and he got his back from the tailor just in time to look good on draft day.
Our older brother Zach he was there too, sporting the same gray slacks that he wore in 2008 when I was drafted by the LA Galaxy.
For Zach, it was a familiar scene at the Baltimore Convention Center as he nursed a flask of Pepto-Bismol to take the edge off his nausea. True story.
The wait was kind, and with the fourth pick in the 2011 MLS Superdraft, Chivas USA selected my brother: Zarek Valentin…defender…University of Akron.
Zarek stood up, hugged us, strutted onto the stage in his Chivas scarf and hat, shook hands and said “cheese” with Commissioner Don Garber and flawlessly delivered all of the standard lines to those in attendance.
The real Zarek Valentin–in most any other settings–would have delivered a stand-up comedy routine and perhaps entertained the crowd with Dance #8. But again, it was draft day, not an appropriate setting to workshop new material.
Zarek’s podcasts are out there on ussoccer.com and his video journal from the recent Generation Adidas trip to Amsterdam will make you laugh, scratch your head and wonder what’s going on in that melon of his.
The Twitter Zarek–his handle is @DubbZV, for some reason — is exactly who the real kid is: random, funny, quirky, a little bit off-the-wall but oddly profound and insightful. The adoration for Oreos—which is frequently tweeted material—is no act. In fact, it’s a time-honored tradition, a snack that we enjoyed all throughout our childhood and still do to this day.
During halftime of late-night Serie A reruns on FSC–studying good defending–we’d head into the kitchen for cookies and milk. Oreos and milk.
I’m looking forward to that when we’re home for Christmas.
Even with the goofy side of his personality, Z is a highly regarded player who has developed an edge. If this were baseball–that’s what I do for work these days–he’d be a four-and-a-half tool player, a guy who made a solid first impression during his first campaign in the Majors.
Am I biased? Of course. But I call it like I see it.
Zarek played all along the Goats backline in his rookie year, demonstrating the vision, poise, technical ability and smart defending that turned heads at the amateur level. As he continues to improve his concentration over 90 minutes and adjust to the speed of play in MLS, the best is still to come. I may be his brother, but I like to think I have a keen eye for ability too.
It’s a funny business, though, and just about a month ago, an inexperienced–to say it as politely as possible–Chivas USA front office pulled a major head-scratcher–to say it as politely as possible–by failing to protect him in the Expansion Draft. MLS legend and Montreal Impact head coach Jesse Marsh was quick to call, and made Z the second pick in the Expansion Draft a couple days later, snapping up a player with Best XI potential…for free.
Am I biased? Of course. But I call it like I see it.
Consider this: Zarek (2,114) logged the fifth-most minutes for Chivas in 2011, behind Nick LaBrocca (3,058), Dan Kennedy (2,880), Heath Pearce (2,581) and Ante Jazic (2,468).
In fact, with his cumulative minutes played in 2011, Zarek became one of two rookies to graduate from Generation Adidas program; former Zips teammate and D.C. United man Perry Kitchen (2,726 minutes) was the other to eclipse the 2,000-minute mark and forfeit GA protection in said Expansion Draft.
Minutes certainly aren’t everything in this game, but they can be a strong indication of many things. You won’t play if you don’t have it, something important to add to the team. For reference, I played 54 minutes with the Galaxy first team in two years. Case and point.
It was a surprising move for Zarek, from white sand to foreign soil, but an opportunity that he’s very excited about. With a young and experienced coaching staff to work under and an impressive vision for the club, Z quickly realized the excitement surrounding the Impact. He learned about the tradition of the club and @DubbZV began to bond with Montreal fans through talk of Oreo cookies and broken French.
Maybe one of them will find his wallet somewhere in Amsterdam too.
Montreal is a beautiful city with great history and culture. Moreover, it’s a special city for us, and fond memories of his first visit to Montreal made Z even more excited.
The first time he’d been to his soon-to-be home was in the summer of 2007 for the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Zach and Zarek spent much of that trip driving around downtown Montreal completely lost after the street signs suddenly switched from English to French. And although Z spent hour upon hour wooing Robbie Rogers’ sister during the Jazz Festival, he was actually there to support me in the tournament.
Zach, Zarek and the rest of our family watched a 1-1 tie against South Korea and a 6-1 thrashing of Poland in at the Olympic Stadium, two memorable games. The Impact are scheduled to open up their MLS era at that same stadium in 2012.
After two games in Quebec, the Valentin crew headed down to Ottawa to watch a rare U.S. win over Brazil–a 2-1 final–and then even went on to Toronto for the knockout rounds against Uruguay, a 2-1 win. (The tournament came to an end for us a few days later with a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to Austria on a rainy afternoon at BMO Field.)
That nomadic summer in Canada lit a fire in the youngest Valentin.
He didn’t miss a game that trip. Zach–who affectionately refers to himself as Cooper Manning after the unknown older brother of Peyton and Eli–did all the driving because Zarek wasn’t old enough: over 16 hours on the road and four hours at the border, all to catch a two-hour match. To and from Toronto from Central Pennsylvania in a day. They watched movies on an iPod on the way, chugged Red Bulls to stay awake and sang along to anthems from “…And Out Came the Wolves” and The Steve Miller Band.
Zarek points to that road trip as the moment he knew he wanted soccer glory more than ever. Shortly after that, he was invited to the same U.S. Soccer Residency program that I attended in Bradenton.
Despite his desire and love for the game, Zarek’s development sputtered after a semester at IMG. Whether it was the immaturity of a 16-year-old or difficulty adjusting to life away from home, he didn’t quite have the appropriate work ethic to achieve his tall goals.
He became complacent, fell into poor training habits and forced then-U-17 MNT Head Coach John Hackworth to dismiss him almost as fast as he had been called. The translation of focused work to attaining glory hadn’t materialized yet.
While that storyline may be one cited commonly, it was tough to take.
But the reality is that Hack was dead right. He wanted to bring in someone else, someone hungrier. He did, however, encourage Zarek to stay down at the academy with the IMG club program to continue playing every day. IMG was happy to take Z…even if the accommodations would be awkward.
Zarek continued to go to the same school as the U.S. Soccer Residency players and lived in a dorm with the very player that the U-17s brought in to replace him. He shared classrooms with the players he wanted to be teammates with and frequently saw them around campus. Z’s new IMG team played friendlies against the U-17s and he’d see them at the cafeteria after each loss.
There were daily reminders that he’d been in their shoes, the shoes that he’d always wanted to walk around in, and that he let the opportunity slip.
It was tough but lasted only a short time. He looked in the mirror, not out the window, learned from it all and worked harder than ever. Sure he was only 16 –not career Armageddon by any means–but when you’re living it, it’s hard to see the big picture.
Zach and I saw Zarek develop real character during that time. To this day, it’s still one of his most impressive accomplishments, what we’re most proud of as brothers.
That is real character.
With a newfound focus, he found a healthier balance of the happy-go-lucky @DubbZV persona and the ruthless aspiring professional.
Continuing to work and thrive under IMG coaches Jim Rooney and Tom Durkin, new doors opened. And with plenty of college options, Zarek chose the vision and charisma of Caleb Porter at the University of Akron, listening to the rave reviews of former IMG teammates Blair Gavin and Anthony Ampaipitakawong. Blair, Ampai and Caleb sold him before a visit to another school was necessary.
And then straight upward. Trajectory acute.
Z fit seamlessly with a team that had quickly become an elite program under Porter’s leadership, building on a foundation set by Ken Lolla. The Zips cruised through the the 2009 season, conceding only a handful of goals all season as Zarek secured a starting job at centerback from day one. The College Cup–held in Cary, N.C. that year, the same field where I clutched the 2007 trophy with my Demon Deacon brethern, bloody face and all…Roger Espinosa and I are friends now–seemed like a foregone conclusion for Porter’s Akron and they took care of business to book their ticket to the Final Four.
After a penalty kick win over North Carolina in the semi-final, Akron lost to Virginia on penalties. They came up one game short and, just like that, my brother’s freshman year was over with unfulfilled team goals.
Zach was down from Pennsylvania for that weekend and I was over from Los Angeles. We wanted to be there for the celebration…or for a hug and a, “You’ll get ’em next time” speech.
“You’ll get ’em next time” it was…
A sophomore Z — with another year of experience and 10,000 more Oreos under his belt — and the Zips got back to work right away, and put together another outstanding campaign in 2010. The “next time” that Zach and I talked about on the night of that tough loss in 2009 came the very next year in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Neither of us could be there–which sucked–but we watched every second on TV.
After going down early to Michigan, the Zips fought back to beat the Wolverines and headed to the College Cup finals for the second consecutive year. In a cagey match, Porter and the boys took take care of business against Lolla’s Louisville and the Zips won Akron’s first National Championship…in any sport.
From my apartment in Tampa, Fla., I watched the match on ESPN. Not more than 15 minutes after the final whistle I got a call.
I couldn’t hear him; he couldn’t hear me. In many ways it was a pointless call because there was no real communication. But the bits of that conversation that did make it through made it an exchange that neither of us will ever forget.
“Congratulations…you got your ring,” I exclaimed. “I wish I could have been there. I’m so proud of you. This might not make any sense, but I’ve always looked up to you…”
There was no response on the other line, save the sound of a rowdy champagne celebration. But the message was clear.
Zarek had always looked up to us.
He had always tried to be like Zach and I.
But we had long admired his character, his resolve.
The translation–now long in the works–was complete that night.
When the three of us got home to Lancaster, Penn., back after the short drive from the 2011 Superdraft in Baltimore, we went bowling. After working the lanes, Zarek threw himself on the couch back at home, exhausted, and began sifting through congratulatory text messages and Facebook wall posts. Zach went back to his house.
I turned on a kickball game between Stoke and Blackburn, walked into the kitchen, opened up the cabinet and pulled out an unopened package of Double Stuf Oreos. I counted out two stacks of six cookies–we always have six each; no more, no less–and poured two short glasses of whole milk–we always have whole milk.
We’ve had “Oreo Hour” countless times growing up. We’d sit in the kitchen late at night and talk about whatever: girls, soccer, family, things that guys usually feel weird talking about.
That night, I told Z some good places to eat in the South Bay and the best places to live in LA. He talked about his excitement and uneasiness as he got ready to begin a new phase in his life. We both talked about being like Captain Planet with our championship rings: mine with a WF, his with an AK.
“Let’s go to The Sandwich Factory tomorrow,” Zarek said with his fingers dangling an Oreo in the milk. “I could crush three buffalo chicken sandwiches.”
Zarek accidentally dropped his Oreo into the milk, splashing it all over the dining room table. He made a goofy, strange noise, making fun of himself for being clumsy in that moment.
“Sounds good to me,” I laughed. “You’re paying.”
That’s what brothers you look up to do.