BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, February 15, 2012
With just a little more than a month to go before the Olympic qualifying tournament begins for the US U-23 team, defender Zarek Valentin is excited for the opportunities that lie ahead.
Valentin, 20, has been a part every US U-23 camps so far and has noticed a steady progression within the core group of players since they first assembled in Germany last November. He now looks forward to seeing it all come together for the camp this month that will conclude with a friendly against Mexico.
"The morale within the team is good," Valentin told YA. "I've seen a lot of improvement from the first camp in Germany to the most recent trip in California and Costa Rica. The team has come a long way in terms of chemistry and the team is clicking on and off the field. Hopefully in this next camp we can get the full group of guys. Once we get those guys, it will be a very special group. It's just a matter of taking care of business."
Valentin has long been a veteran of the youth systems within US Soccer but last year he was part of the US U-20 team that was shocked in World Cup qualifying.
Entering into the qualifying tournament, the US U-20 team was one of the favorites in CONCACAF and a deep run at the World Cup was expected. They were undefeated in group play but when they advanced to the quarterfinals, they lost to Guatemala in Guatemala City and failed to advance to the World Cup.
Valentin, along with players like Joe Gyau, Perry Kitchen, and Sebastian Lletget were part of that team and the memory of Guatemala still stings. The bitter feelings are now being used as motivation to move forward.
"We are confident and we are excited to get into qualification," Valentin discussed. "A large part of the group is part of the U-20 team that did not qualify for the World Cup last year. A lot of guys have a pretty big chip on their shoulder, including myself. We're out to prove ourselves because we know we let a lot of people down - from the federation to the country."
During his career, Valentin has earned the reputation of being a very versatile player. During his time in college at Akron, he played primarily as a central defender. In his rookie season at Chivas USA, he was predominately a right back.
During the first U-23 camp Valentin played left back but in the recent games in January, he was playing central defense where he had yet to play at the professional level.
"I grew up playing center back," Valentin pointed out. "There is definitely a sense of comfort for me there. I played there for Caleb Porter in college so I know what he expects from me. It's just a matter of me finding where I fit in best with the team. I am comfortable at center back but if he needs me to play outside back, then I am fine with that. Hopefully after this upcoming camp I can settle in somewhere."
It is also no secret that the left back position has long been an Achilles Heel for US national teams from the youth level all the way to the senior team. Valentin earned positive reviews when he played there for the U-23's but he is the first to admit that it is not his top position.
"A lot of the body positioning is new to me - just opening up with my left foot," Valentin said of playing left back. "But it's the same thing only that I'm using my left foot more. I played left back with the U-23s in Germany back in November and for a few games last year with Chivas USA. Obviously I prefer the right but if he needs me on the left I will become a left back pretty soon."
No matter what position Valentin plays for the U-23 team, he will have a solid familiarity with head coach Caleb Porter. It was Porter who recruited Valentin to play under him at the University of Akron after his high school graduation in 2009.
In his freshman season, Valentin started every game as Akron advanced all the way to the NCAA Championship game before losing to the University of Virginia in a shootout.
In his sophomore season in 2010 he achieved even greater success as Akron won the national title and Valentin was an important part of a defense that allowed only 16 goals the entire season.
Valentin is now reunited with Porter on a U-23 team that is made up entirely of professionals. Despite the new environment, the Lancaster native insists that Porter is the same coach as he is at Akron.
"He's the same honest coach," Valentin said. "That's one thing guys notice about him. He's straight forward with everyone. If the training is not good, he'll let you know. The cornerstone for him is his passion. He's going to push every player until he gets the best out of him. I've seen him do that time and time again. Guys are really opening up to him."
The US U-23 team will open camp on February 19 and will host Mexico on February 29 at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas.