CARSON, Calif – Chivas USA rookie Zarek Valentin has impressed in his first season with the Rojiblancos, quickly becoming a stalwart in head coach Robin Fraser’s defensive rotation.
When Chivas travel to PPL Park to face the Philadelphia Union on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; watch LIVE online), it will be a chance for the 20-year-old to showcase himself in front of his family and friends. The defender was raised in nearby Lancaster, Pa., a little over an hour away from Chester, Pa., where the Union are based.
“My mom has been making groups since the season started," Valentin told MLSsoccer.com. "I think she has a group of 180, and I’m getting 10 tickets for my friends, so I’m expecting around 200 people at least."
For the ever-excitable defender, this homecoming was a date he circled on the calendar a long time ago.
“These people have been supporting me for years and years, so to have them watch me in the professional ranks, I’ll be a little emotional because I’ve been so honored for them to be there," Valentin said. "And if I make them proud, then that will make it even better.”
Though Valentin is looking forward to playing in front of family and friends, it is by no means a certainty that he'll even see the field. During the last couple of weeks, the rookie has been engaged in a positional battle with veteran Ante Jazic for the left back spot.
Valentin has also played both at center back and his more natural right back position for Chivas, but head coach Robin Fraser has had to move the versatile rookie through the back line because of the ascension of Michael Umaña in the center and Michael Lahoud on the right.
The transition to the left has not been without its pitfalls, and two weeks ago, Valentin found himself on the bench in Chivas' 2-1 loss to Houston. However, the rookie has the benefit of a good mentor to help him deal with the transition: fellow defender Heath Pearce, who has worked through positional changes throughout his career.
“He’s been providing me with pointers," Valentin said. "Not necessarily how to make a great pass or tackle, but the little things that end up making a huge difference. Wherever I play, though, I’m just excited to see the field and get better every day.”
Valentin admits that toward the end of his college career, he was interested in playing in Pennsylvania, but eventually the Union’s depth at the defense allowed him to turn on his focus elsewhere, which led him to Chivas USA.
“Getting closer to the draft, I wanted to go to a team that would suit me the best so I could get a chance to play, and I knew that Philly had a solid back line at the time,” Valentin said. “I wanted to come to Chivas, who are a young up-and-coming team with faith in me. So in the end, it worked out absolutely perfect.”
Adam Serrano covers Chivas USA for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @adamserrano