BRIAN SCIARETTA - Monday, December 20, 2010
With the US U-20 national team 2010 schedule now concluded after its December camp in Ft. Lauderdale, one player who says he was happy to be back in the mix was defender Zarek Valentin.
Valentin, 19, entered into camp on a triumphant note after leading the University of Akron to the NCAA Championship the previous week with a 1-0 win over the University of Louisville.
"It feels great to be back with the national team," Valentin told YA from Ft. Lauderdale. "It's been since July actually after the Milk Cup. I couldn't really do anything else during the college season. But it feels good to get back with team and see the guys again to try to redevelop some of the chemistry that was lost a little bit with time."
Valentin has found it a bit difficult to adjust to the international game on such quick notice after the end of the college season, but he was excited for the challenge.
"It's a little tough with fatigue," The Lancaster, Pennsylvania native admitted. "But at the same time you are playing for your country which doesn't happen very often. You always get reenergized for that. There is definitely a change in the level of play but it's also a good change. You always like to challenge yourself and play at the highest level you can. College is a little bit under the national team spectrum so it's great to go up a level."
The quest to win the NCAA title has been a major goal for Valentin since he arrived at Akron in the fall of 2009. In his freshman season, he was a key part of the defense for Akron as it went undefeated in the regular season but lost the national title game in a shootout to the University of Virginia.
This past year in Valentin's sophomore season, Akron finished the year ranked third but won the title with wins over West Virginia, Indiana, California, Michigan, and Louisville.
"It's been amazing," Valentin recalled of winning the title. "I know we set a goal on December 14th last year, the day after we lost in last year's title game, that we really wanted to get back and win this year. We set our goals then. It's not really that a weight has been lifted off our shoulders but we essentially achieved our goal."
Akron's team has been built on defense and this has not gone unnoticed by U-20 head coach Thomas Rongen who, in addition to Valentin, has called in Chad Barson, Kofi Sarkodie, and Perry Kitchen so far this cycle.
Valentin has said that the chemistry at Akron has carried over into the U-20 team.
"It's great," Valentin said of having Akron teammates on the US U-20s. "In this camp I have Perry Kitchen here with me and he's been great with the way he plays and conducts himself on the field. It's really comforting to bring that back from Akron to here with the national team."
Valentin is also a part of an Akron team that is earning a reputation of turning out players that are ready for the professional and international environment as seen by Teal Bunbury and Steve Zakuani. Valentin attributes this to the way head coach Caleb Porter runs the team.
"On the field, Caleb conducts it almost like a pro team," Valentin explained. "He gives you your freedom but at the same time he holds you accountable on and off the field."
Valentin is versatile on the backline having played central defense for Akron but also over the course of the year playing right back under Rongen. Valentin started on the right in the US U-20's 5-0 victory over Canada on Saturday and notched an assist on the second US goal when he sent in a cross that Josh Gatt volleyed home.
Valentin also knows that the competition for a spot on the US roster could be the most competitive it has ever been for a US youth team. Despite being a regular for Rongen, he is aware that he will have to play well in upcoming camps just to make the team.
"We have some new guys in this camp and a lot of them are good," Valentin assessed. "It's good that there is healthy competition. It's always welcome, even with myself in bringing in different defenders. I like having that competition to push myself. In the end it will really improve the team. It's good to have that within the team to see how good we can be."
It is this competition that leads Valentin to think that this team has great potential heading into next year and this was seen last summer during the Milk Cup which was the last time the real core of the team was together.
"I think we have good potential," Valentin said of the team. "Qualifying is our first goal and we aren't going to take any team in CONCACAF lightly. For the World Cup, I think we have a good squad. The Milk Cup was really a good morale booster for the team. If we come together, we can really be part of something special."
Following this camp, Valentin will have to make the difficult decision as to whether to turn professional or return to college. If he were to enter his name in the MLS draft, he would likely be a top ten pick.
"At this point I am still evaluating my options and keeping everything open," Valentin explained. "Seeing what's best for my family and I. I know [the decision] has to be made in the pretty near future. Once this camp is over, I have to go home and talk with my family. I'll go back to Akron for a day or two and meet with Caleb Porter and really see what would work out best and whether I'm ready."
Whether it is this year or sometime in the future, whenever he does make the decision to go professional he will explore options in MLS and overseas.
"Eventually I would like to go pro," Valentin concluded. "That is every player's dream. At this point I am not sure where I would want to go. It's all a matter of where things would fit and what situation fits me best. Whether it's abroad or it is in the MLS I want to be in a situation that feels right."