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Growing pains for Eriq Zavaleta in his first MLS start

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A surprise starter took some lumps in his first action with the Goats.

One of the intended benefits of the MLS intraleague loan system is to give young players an opportunity to play in the league when their parent clubs may not have room for them in the lineup. The team receiving the player on loan expects to be a better fit for giving a player minutes, and gets a decent player (temporarily) without having to give anything up for him.

This arrangement has already worked as it was intended for the Seattle Sounders and Chivas USA when it comes to Eriq Zavaleta. The last player to join the Goats in the preseason, Zavaleta was a surprise starter for Wilmer Cabrera last weekend when Chivas faced FC Dallas, a game they ultimately lost 3-1.

When training camp opened, one of the big position battles was in the center of defense, as Bobby Burling and new arrival Andrew Jean-Baptiste competed to see who would be paired next to Carlos Bocanegra to start the season. Burling won, and started the first two games. Jean-Baptiste, however, was listed on the injury report, so the arrangement seemed to work out well.

But both Burling and Jean-Baptiste were too hurt to play in Dallas, and then who is next on the depth chart at center back? *crickets*

It turns out, Zavaleta was next. The fourth choice CB was suddenly thrust into the spotlight, on the road making his first career MLS start. It wasn't a stellar performance, let's just say.

Though his numbers weren't out of line compared to Bocanegra's, Zavaleta's inexperience showed in several spots, especially Dallas' first two goals.

First, on the first goal, Mauro Diaz sends a free kick in the box that Hendry Thomas flicks on, for Fabian Castillo to finish. It's worth questioning Chivas' defensive line on that set piece to begin with, as it looks like they tried to play an offside trap, but with so many bodies trying to hold the line, the odds of that working successfully were pretty slim, let's be real.

However, you'll notice who doesn't challenge Thomas on that header: Zavaleta. Instead, he sorta tries to go for the header himself, and is simply cut off by Thomas. Without Thomas getting to that ball, that goal doesn't happen.

On Dallas' winning goal, you'll see another sign of inexperience from the youngster. Take nothing away from the pass by Diaz on that goal, or on Je-Vaughn Watson's individual skill in finishing. Both players did a great job, and Diaz in particular literally cut most of Chivas' defense out of the play with his long diagonal ball through.

This one is much more subtle, but both Zavaleta and Bocanegra had a chance to make a last-ditch clearance of Watson's shot, and both were a second late. Though Boca realizes what's about to happen sooner, he doesn't have the speed Zavaleta does, and had Zavaleta sped up earlier, he could have raced to the goal line and covered for Dan Kennedy, who tried to meet Watson as an emergency tactic.

Let's be fair, though: Zavaleta was making his first MLS start, and he's surely not familiar with Kennedy's game at this point. The defenders who play with DK know that when the 'keeper has to go out to snuff out an opponent's chance, at least one defender needs to head to the goal line to try to cover if a shot gets through.

The point of this is not to make full-fledged judgments on a young player, but to highlight the obvious: Zavaleta was a fourth-string player making his first start. He looked shaky and not always on the same page as his teammates. He is still learning how to be a defender at a professional level.

And it's not as though Zavaleta was the only one to make mistakes on the night. In many respects, Chivas' defense regressed to the expected mean against Dallas, with the other three regular starters taking numerous lumps against a dynamic FCD attack. Additionally, the former Chivas USA Academy player made some good plays in the game, particularly in the first half, and he led all players in the game in clearances, something that Chivas had to do a great deal.

All in all, Zavaleta made some mistakes, but that's to be expected. Most likely, Burling will be back or Jean-Baptiste (who played in Sunday's reserve game) will make his competitive Chivas debut against the New York Red Bulls. Still, the on-loan defender has some minutes under his belt with his new team, and his education as an MLS player continues.

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