In a different universe, could Eriq Zavaleta have become a building block of a Chivas USA resurgence?
The defender/forward was entering his second professional season in 2014, and had not gotten much playing time with the Seattle Sounders in his rookie year. Right as the season was starting, Zavaleta got the call, sent on an intraleague loan to Chivas USA for the season, one of a few players around the league involved with the newish loan system.
In many respects, the season with the Goats worked quite well, as Zavaleta saw quite a bit of action as the team's third centerback, and learned the position at an MLS level at a fairly rapid clip.
CUSA head coach Wilmer Cabrera, who had worked with Zavaleta on the U.S. U-17 team back in the day, clearly thought he could get something out of the tweener (Zavaleta played forward successfully in college at Indiana, but had played in defense when he was part of Chivas USA's Academy in 2011), and quickly moved the 22-year-old up the depth chart past the more experienced Andrew Jean-Baptiste. Though AJB was dealing with an injury and subsequent surgery for much of the season, once Zavaleta got a foothold as the first reserve to back up Carlos Bocanegra and Bobby Burling, he held on for the rest of the season.
Here were Zavaleta's statistics in 2014:
|Games Played||Games Started||Minutes||Goals||Assists||Shots||SOG||Yellow Cards||Red Cards|
|MLS Regular Season||17||15||1,323||0||0||2||1||1||0|
|U.S. Open Cup||1||1||120||0||0||0||0||0||0|
I certainly don't want to oversell Zavaleta's contributions. He primarily played in three chunks during the season: four consecutive starts in late-March and early-April, five straight starts in July and August, and six appearances (four starts) in Chivas' final eight games of the season. And like many of his teammates, the team's record while he was on the field wasn't stellar, though participating in two of the Goats' wins in October certainly helped his number (3-11-4 across all competitions) and perhaps proved to be a reward for his work during the season.
But Zavaleta seemed to have the tools to develop as an MLS-caliber centerback, possessing speed and ability to recover, especially when paired with a slow but smart partner in Bocanegra. When he played alongside Jean-Baptiste, both players seemed to suffer from a lack of knowledge and were often caught out of position as they tried to fling themselves after plays, only to fail to recognize the second option lurking just beyond.
So he often performed at the level of his partner -- with a steady, experienced veteran, his play was strong more often than not, but with a relative newcomer, he looked out of his depth. But nonetheless, given these reps it appears he has the tools to develop into a pretty decent defender, and probably within a couple of years given the right situation.
What's unfortunate for Zavaleta is that Chivas USA went out of business. While nobody can guarantee he would have become a permanent member of the team, it seems likely that he would have been brought back for 2015, especially with Seattle declining his option at the end of the season. And with no team picking him up in the Waiver Draft, Zavaleta is surprisingly cut adrift, a free agent entering next season.
That's a surprise on several fronts, frankly. I don't necessarily doubt why Seattle dumped him, since they allowed Chivas to turn him into a defender when they had been trying to make him a striker at MLS level, and that's a clear indication they weren't that keen on him anyway. And with defense often being Seattle's biggest need over the years, really putting in the time to develop a youngster still learning the position doesn't appear to be their priority at the moment anyway, not when their objective is to win right now.
But it is a surprise for the rest of MLS to not have any interest in the former Generation adidas player. Yes, maybe a relatively high contract cost kept interested teams away so far this offseason, maybe as much as Chivas' terrible goals against numbers didn't really produce a sparkling resume on the surface. But I find it hard to believe there isn't room for him on some MLS team's roster, and I think that on a decent team, he could actually turn out to be really good depth and possibly even a starter, given the right situation. Maybe Toronto FC, where his uncle, Greg Vanney, is head coach, could give him a new chance?
But in using the eyeball test, Zavaleta has potential, and he's got time, if the right coach can help him hone his skills. It's a shame that CUSA went out of business, because he might have been groomed as the steady CB of the future for that team. But as it stands, he's just another guy looking for a team in 2015.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!