Family ties: Zavaleta blossoms under uncle Greg Vanney's care at Toronto FC

TORONTO – Amid the many storylines that surround Saturday's MLS Cup final between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, one is unique.

“It's a special thing for us to be doing it together,” said Toronto defender Eriq Zavaleta on Thursday.

Zavaleta was referring to sharing this deep run in the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs with his uncle, Greg Vanney, TFC's head coach.

“[We've] had a unique relationship since I was a little kid, especially through soccer,” said Zavaleta. “To be able to do this with him in charge and me playing significant minutes … It's cool for him and I, and cool for the rest of our family as well. We'll have a lot of [them] up there this weekend; hopefully we can all be together and celebrate something special.”

Now in his fourth season as a professional, Zavaleta has earned a starting spot in Toronto's three-man backline, and is set to get his first taste of an MLS Cup final this weekend (8 pm ET, FOX, UniMás | TSN1/3/4, RDS in Canada).

Vanney played in three MLS Cups over his own 12-year career, winning 36 caps for the US national team in the process. An Indiana native, Zavaleta would travel to Columbus whenever Vanney played against Crew SC or when the national team was in town.

“Every time, he would take time after training or games to kick the ball around with me,” recalled Zavaleta. “That continued all the way up to when his career ended. Once it did, and he started coaching, he brought me in and [coached] me. He's been an integral part of my playing career. For it all to culminate into a special weekend like this … it would be fitting that we cap it off with an MLS Cup.”

A prolific goalscorer as a striker in college with the Indiana Hoosiers, Zavaleta's game was influenced in more ways than one by Vanney. 

“I grew up watching him play, was interested in the way that he played the game; looked up to [him]. That was part of it,” said Zavaleta. “But at the same time, he's a guy that understands the game. When he saw me playing forward, he said, 'I don't think you're a forward, you're a good soccer player and that's why you've succeeded, but ultimately I think you're a center back'. He's always pushed me to play there. By the nature of me starting at center back in MLS Cup, I think he's right.”

Highly touted out of college, Zavaleta was initially drafted 13th overall by the Sounders as a member of Generation Adidas in 2013. But he made only five appearances for them over two seasons, the majority of which were spent on loan, including a year at Chivas USA in 2014.

“The transition from the college to professional game is bigger than any other you go through,” explained Zavaleta. “From high school to college is one, but not nearly as much. Speed of the game, the savvy, technical or tactical ability, of players. You run up against better players. Guys coming out of college are forced to adapt quickly or they'll be forgotten.”

Now firmly established as a pro, Zavaleta still sees room to grow.

“There are many things to continue to work on,” he said. “Every little aspect of my game can get better. Reading the game, more athletic, better in the air. I'm certainly not content with where I'm at; I've got even more to go and I'm going to push myself to become as good as I can possibly be and see where that leads me.”

Zavaleta also has the chance to face his former side in this title bout. He keeps in touch with some members of the Sounders squad, though “not this week,” as he joked on Saturday. The only professional goal he's scored to date came against Seattle last season.

“You can't write a script like that,” he said with a smile. “I knew, in my short time at Seattle, that they had something special brewing there. I was fortunate enough to get traded to a team that has put their trust in me. I've succeeded here, we've succeeded to get this far. It's going to be a special moment to be out there representing Toronto; just a little wrinkle [that it's] against my former team.”