San Jose Earthquakes forward Adam Jahn and Toronto FC defenders Eriq Zavaleta and Ashtone Morgan jump for a ball

TORONTO – Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore have dominated the headlines for the past few months, but 22-year-old defender Eriq Zavaleta has emerged behind the scenes for Toronto FC with big performances – and even bigger dreams.

“I want to strive to get better, do more and become an MLS All-Star,” Zavaleta said.

Drafted 10th overall in 2013 by the Seattle Sounders, Zavaleta has had an interesting MLS journey. After a strange first two seasons that saw him play as a striker and bounce over on loan to Chivas USA, Zavaleta has been connected with his uncle, TFC head coach Greg Vanney, following an offseason trade.

In recent weeks, Zavaleta has emerged as a key contributor to the TFC backline, playing alongside Damien Perquis in central defense heading into Saturday's away match against D.C. United (7 pm ET; MLS LIVE).

His solid performance in TFC’s 3-1 victory Saturday over the San Jose Earthquakes earned him a spot on the MLS Team of the Week bench. Zavaleta is feeling confident, though not yet satisfied. 

“I’ve had a good run in a couple games here, and now it’s, ‘Can you get better, not be satisfied with where I’m at?’” Zavaleta told reporters at training Thursday. “I’ve always been that way. I’ve never been one that’s going to be happy with just being in the 11 or making the bench of the team of the week or whatever it may be.”

Zavaleta’s emergence for Toronto FC came not as a result of injury, but rather, of preference. Vanney explained that Zavaleta is very sound in his position and decision-making. He described Zavaleta as a “cerebral player” who “problem-solves in his head.”

Zavaleta is also Vanney’s nephew whose father, also a professional soccer player, was one of Vanney’s coaches growing up. Vanney pointed to Zavaleta’s background of “soccer thinkers” as one reason for his emergence in the team.

Vanney said he wanted to ensure that Zavaleta was given the right circumstances to use those abilities.

“The main thing for guys like Eriq is that we clarify and simplify their roles, and they can be great within what they need to do within the structure of our team,” Vanney said. “If they focus on the details within their role then I think that allows them to emerge as stars in some way.”

That role meant making Zavaleta’s position on the field clear, once and for all.

“In my head, he was always a center back,” Vanney said.

Zavaleta couldn’t agree more.

“Truthfully, that’s where I felt like I was going to have the best chance to succeed,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m being given a chance here. That’s the biggest thing. It’s on my shoulders, and I feel responsible to reward the coach for giving me a chance. I was a young player, a naïve player and, frankly, wasn’t good enough in my first year. Now, I think that’s changed.”

When asked how he has changed, Zavaleta offered one word: experience.

“You can watch the league as much as you want, but the moment you step on the field it’s different,” he said. “If you watch the past few games, you can see that I can do it. It’s proven now to myself, and now it’s about proving that to other people, to all the other people who haven’t seen it yet.”