Note: This week, The Goat Parade will offer a series called "Devil's Advocate," looking at some of the big decisions that have taken place for Chivas USA and offering a different perspective. In today's entry, we'll be looking at Chivas leaving Zarek Valentin unprotected for the Expansion Draft this offseason, which led to his selection in said draft.
The purpose of the MLS SuperDraft is to build for the future, and when Chivas USA selected Zarek Valentin fourth overall in 2011, he seemed to be a defender for the future for the Goats, possibly following in the footsteps of former Chivas defender Jonathan Bornstein to MLS accolades and U.S. Men's National Team. And while he had some growing pains, he played a significant role for Chivas on the field in 2011, when he played 25 appearances along the backline. He was also a fan favorite, and his goofy personality seemed capable of making him something of a media darling in a short time. With all of the turmoil on the squad, it appeared at least one guy's spot was affirmed.
Certainly, the fact that Chivas left Valentin unprotected in the Expansion Draft came as a shock, and as soon as that news was released it seemed inevitable that Montreal Impact coach Jesse Marsch would snap him up. Valentin had a pedigree, with the Akron program, and the youth national team chops, as he's progressed up the ranks and looks set to start in the USMNT U-23 squad during next month's CONCACAF Qualifying tournament. And the fact that Chivas coach Robin Fraser trusted Valentin enough to throw him into the lineup straightaway meant that he clearly has the MLS-level skills.
When explaining the front office's decision to leave Valentin unprotected, Fraser complained that Valentin should never have been "graduated" from the Generation Adidas program after just one year. Fraser maintained that young Zarek had a great deal of development before he could be a competent pro, and so deciding Valentin was through with the program because of the amount of games played was foolish.
Fraser's rationale was widely panned - why take a guy who played regularly if you were just going to dump him for nothing after a year? I still think this is pretty convincing, but this series is called "Devil's Advocate" for a reason, so let me build a case that argues losing Valentin isn't a complete catastrophy.
The germ of this argument comes from my assessment of Valentin's 2011 season from December. Coming into the 2011 season, here was the depth chart for defense:
- Center backs: Jimmy Conrad, Zarek Valentin, Michael Umana, Andrew Boyens, Seth Owusu
- Full backs: Heath Pearce, Ante Jazic, Mariano Trujillo
- Midfielders who could play defense: Michael Lahoud, Ben Zemanski, Jorge Villafana, Francisco Mendoza
Valentin started the 2011 season opener for Chivas at center back, but he was moved over to right back for most of the season. Conrad was the established center back, and Fraser looked around for a partner in the middle. After Conrad's career-ending concussion in the second match, Heath Pearce, originally intended as a full back (where he played his whole career) was center back for the rest of the campaign, and had a generally solid season in a brand new position. So that meant Chivas were down a defender, a key defender it must be added, from almost the very start of the season.
Boyens and Umana partnered with Pearce in the middle for most of the season, although new signing David Junior Lopes started the last handful of the season. Meanwhile, Jazic played most of the season at left back (he was only out for injury) so that position was settled. Right back was open, however, and rather than put Valentin in the middle and leave the center very inexperienced, Pearce slotted in and his old position was open. So the logical thing happened, where Valentin played on the right.
As I argued in December, injuries hurt the defensive depth of the team, and Fraser's claim that Valentin was not yet sufficiently developed makes a great deal of sense, especially moving over to right back from his college position of center back. If Conrad had been healthy, it is entirely possible that Valentin would not have played anywhere close to 25 matches in 2011. But the coaching staff had little choice, and therefore he had a baptism by fire.
Another reason (perhaps the key reason) why Chivas' front office decided to let Valentin go was because of his salary. If you read this blog with any regularity, you are no doubt aware that under the Generation Adidas program, players get paid a premium salary, in order to entice them to play in MLS before finishing college, but teams with GA players do not claim their salary in the salary cap figures. Valentin made $80,000 base salary in 2011 ($132,000 guaranteed compensation), which is high compared to other players of comparable experience. I previously used the example of New England Revolution defender A.J. Soares, also a rookie in 2011, who played 28 matches last season. He was not in the GA program, and he made $42,000 in base salary, $82,000 guaranteed. I'm not necessarily arguing Soares and Valentin are of a comparable quality, but for teams that struggled in the standings that both had rookie defenders, the pay scale was considerably different.
Even the player who looks set to replace Valentin in the starting lineup, James Riley, made $92,000 in base salary last year for the Seattle Sounders ($97,962.50 in guaranteed compensation). Riley is a seven-year veteran of MLS, and has made 178 career regular season appearances in MLS, plus 12 playoff appearances. He has experience and will likely prove to be a more consistent player in the short term than Valentin. The drawback, of course, is that Valentin's career is most likely to be longer than Riley's, considering the latter is 29 years old. But Chivas need to get better quickly, and waiting a few years for a player to fully develop at his position might be too much to ask for the club's prospects.
Finally, we all talk about the promise of Valentin, but potential is not the same thing as verified quality. He could turn out to be a very good professional, no doubt about it. He could even blossom into a good enough player to make the jump to a favorable situation in Europe. But it's not a done deal. It's certainly a risk for any player, but we need to see how he does down the line. If he turns out to be a rock and a perennial USMNT player and MLS Best XI selection, this move by Chivas will look very bad indeed. But we just don't know yet, and if he turns out to be an okay but not great player, maybe it was better to cut ties sooner rather than later, lest his unfulfilled promise tease the club and its fans indefinitely.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!