CARSON, Calif. – From the first moment many children kick a ball around at the playground with their friends, they dream of playing under the bright lights of the professional ranks together.
Not many get the chance to do that, but for Zarek Valentin and Andrew Wenger, that dream will become a reality this season in MLS.
Childhood pals from Pennsylvania, both will suit up for the Montreal Impact in 2012 and, potentially, the US Under-23 Olympic squad.
When Valentin, a second-year defender, learned that one of his buddies, MLS SuperDraft No. 1 overall pick Wenger, would be joining him at Montreal, he was beyond ecstatic.
“If you ask anyone who was on the [US U-23] trip with us, they thought there was an emergency in my room,” Valentin told MLSsoccer.com last week. “I ran up and down the hallways screaming, 'Woo!' for 15 minutes because I didn’t know that he was getting drafted. I even asked the [Impact] staff before the draft, ‘Is there anything that you want to tell me?’ as a joke, and they said that they couldn’t tell me.”
Wenger’s selection may have re-united the longtime friends, but despite their history, neither can agree when that first meeting took place.
Valentin believes that they met when they were nine, while Wenger is sure that the pair first met when they were 11. No matter what the age, though, the scene for their meeting is clear as day.
“It was a tryout for a local club FC Leeds," Valentin recalled. "[Wenger] was just this taller kid that I had never met. We played up top together for about three years and then we moved back to center mid because I couldn’t score anymore.
“I moved to defensive mid and he was an attacking mid, so it went well together because I did most of the defensive work. In our senior year in high school, we played the same exact roles, defensive midfield and attacking midfield.”
The pair went their seperate ways after high school, Valentin to Akron and Wenger to Duke, but both kept tabs on each other. Wenger admits that while Valentin may be the “same goofy kid,” he’s developed into a “composed defender”; Valentin feels that Wenger has become a versatile weapon on the field.
As the duo looks ahead to the 2012 season with MLS newcomers Montreal, both appear destined for different roles with the expansion side. A Wenger-Valentin center back pairing seemed like a distinct possibility, but with the recent acquisition of Italian defender Matteo Ferrari, Wenger will likely be pushed further up field.
Although Wenger, who can seemingly play every position but goalkeeper, is unclear about what role he’ll play in his rookie year, he believes that having Valentin around should help his transition into MLS.
“It’s someone that I’m comfortable with, someone to go to dinner with and that always makes it easier than just going to a completely new environment,” Wenger told MLSsoccer.com. “He’s been to a lot of national teams too, so he always makes me feel comfortable on the field.”
And although they may not be playing on the same line, the childhood friends are in the process of finding an apartment together. With hectic schedules, both have spent time scouring Craigslist and other Montreal housing websites looking for their future home.
“It’s going slowly,” said Wenger with a smile. “We keep saying that we’re going to do it, but we’re just too lazy at the moment. I’ve only been in Montreal for a day and he’s been there a couple. Hopefully, when we get back from the U-23 camp in the beginning of March, we’ll figure it out.”
Valentin and Wenger may not have their housing plans finalized just yet, but both agree that playing alongside one another this preseason is just like old times.
“It’s been great; we have good chemistry and we know each other well,” Valentin said. "We know how each other plays and what each other likes, balls to feed to space and we judge each other well on our pace. I don’t know if we’ll play together within the squad, but it’s a good comfort factor, that’s for sure.”
Adam Serrano writes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.