Back on April 24, the sign hung near midfield along the east sideline was a basic one by the lofty standards of Providence Park and its rich supporter culture. But with such a simple and powerful message, it didn’t have to be elaborate.
It’s not too often that home fans offer up such a heartfelt welcome to a member of the away team. But the MLS Week 2 match marked Zarek Valentin’s first return to the Rose City since a 2019 trade to Houston Dynamo FC from the Portland Timbers, where he remains much-loved despite his change of colors and address.
Maybe it’s the defender’s commitment and dependability on the pitch, or his approachability off it. Or his complete lack of pretense, epitomized by his embrace of a somewhat inebriated Timbers fan’s 2018 challenge to wear a ribbon in his hair during a match like his then-Thorns FC counterpart Hayley Raso did, which led to thousands of dollars in fundraising for a local organization that supports houseless and at-risk LGBT+ youth.
Really, it’s all of the above that made Portland fall in love with “Z,” and has already endeared him to the faithful in Houston, a very different city where the new-look Dynamo and Dash aspire to become a community institution just as profoundly cherished as the Timbers and Thorns are.
“I just try to be as organic as possible, I try to be super raw with people,” Valentin said ahead of Saturday’s Texas Derby against FC Dallas (3:30 pm ET | Univision, TUDN, Twitter). “I want to be someone who's real and I told people in Portland that, too. If you saw me somewhere out, we could have a beer and have a chat about life, about your family, about what you're going through. That's what's cool to me.
“Hopefully people like that, and one thing I've tried to personally do is just embrace the city and its culture wherever I've gone.”
Valentin met his future wife, Liz, while playing in Montréal. He credits a three-year stint with FK Bodø/Glimt, a modest Norwegian club north of the Arctic Circle where he helped earn promotion to the top flight in 2013, for galvanizing his professionalism. He and Liz got married in the Rose City – Diego Valeri’s daughter, Connie, served as the flower girl – bought a house there and welcomed their son, Cameron, into the world there.
But they’ve dived into their new life in south Texas, even when a pandemic swept across the planet a few months in, settling into Houston’s Montrose neighborhood just west of downtown. The concept of the club, its fans and neighbors as a community has been a key vehicle in doing so.
Just as he did with the Thorns in Portland, Valentin quickly became a vociferous backer of the Dash, taking part in outreach events with colleagues like Rachel Daly, and connected with fans despite the social distancing imposed by COVID-19.
When he and Liz were planning their Thanksgiving dinner last November, it sparked an idea that led to him and other Dynamo and Dash players and staff fundraising over $18,000 for the Houston Food Bank to help feed more than 20,000 families across the Bayou City.
A few months later in February, a deadly winter storm ravaged the entire state of Texas, robbing millions of power, water and other basic needs. It prompted Valentin and his teammates to get involved, delivering water to shelters and issuing a wider call for help.
“Christian Ramirez texted me one of those nights,” he recalled. “We didn't even have power yet but he was like, ‘It's going come back on soon, but we're fortunate enough to where we have a fridge that's filled solid, and others don't. And some people are sitting in their cars just to stay as warm as possible. And we need to figure this out.’”
Working with Valerie Holland, the club’s community relations director, they enlisted teammates and Dash players like Jane Campbell, Veronica Latsko and Shea Groom. They launched a relief fund that raised over $30,000 for the Food Bank and Kids Meals – powered, Valentin is quick to note, by members of the wider MLS and NWSL communities far beyond Houston.
“I've been very fortunate to be surrounded by some incredible people that helped lift me up and give me the courage to get out of my comfort zone and take some steps and take some shots,” he said.
“I would say it’s the MLS community. I don't just want to say Houston or just some supporters in Portland or Montréal, the clubs that I played at. We got donations from around the country,” Valentin added, wearing a Dash jersey during our video interview. “I’ve found that the MLS community is very strong when you want to band together. Supporters groups, as much as they come at it on the field, which is what we want, they can have each others’ back off the field.”
That mindset is a central aspect of the Dynamo’s offseason rebrand, visually manifested in a new crest and the addition of “FC” to the club’s moniker but intended to run far deeper, with closer ties between the men’s, women’s and academy teams and a commitment to serve the people of Houston. It’s a natural fit for Valentin, who recognizes that results on the pitch are the be-all, end-all. But he also hopes that supporters disillusioned by more struggles than successes in recent seasons can see the culture shift underway.
“I found out that Houston is the most diverse city in the country,” he said. “It has more immigrants than other cities, and immigrants come to America to get a better life and they come to work hard. So Houston’s a very blue-collar, hard-working city. Everybody brings something different and that's something Portland didn't have, so I'm really trying to understand that and embrace that.
“And I know that the club is embracing that. When we added the FC, people kind of chuckled, but I definitely think that they're embodying that, and I'm excited to see how it moves forward this year.”
La Naranja fell well short of expectations in 2020, year one under head coach Tab Ramos and his pressing system. Few prognosticators have ranked them as a leading Western Conference contender in 2021, but they’ve gotten the new campaign off to a promising start and Valentin believes the overhaul will pay dividends in the months ahead.
“Results didn't go well last year, we were last place in the West. We can't dodge that,” he said, also acknowledging the history that the old Dynamo badge represented for longtime supporters. “But ultimately, when I got here, I spoke to Tab, I spoke to Matt [Jordan], our GM, about just the path in which the club was headed. And it didn't even involve the rebrand, it was just the change in culture.
“You could see with the moves we made this offseason, the team is in a completely different mindset, different light than last year, bringing in guys like Tim \[Parker\], Fafa \[Picault\], Derrick Jones, Joe Corona, the list goes on and on,” he continued. “The team is completely changing its identity on the field. And then I think things with the rebranding will take care of themselves off the field. This team will be associated to this crest, and it's on us to make sure that we take care of our business on the pitch.”
For Valentin, his soccer responsibilities and his work in the community are just two facets of the same job.
“If we can go out there and show that we care about the city, that we care about getting money to the Houston Food Bank to feed people, to donate to Kids Meals, to do whatever it might be, then the fans are going to come support us. And it's not even necessarily doing it so that they come support us,” he said.
“Because taking care of people, putting food on people's plates, that's the most important thing. To keep the lights on, that's the most important thing. Using our platform for good in these cities that need athletes and need leaders, that's what juices me up.”