BEAVERTON, Ore. – Zarek Valentin came into Portland Timbers’ training camp this winter fighting for a job, a status which makes Saturday’s first even more remarkable. Come the final whistle at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Valentin had completed the 90 minutes as an unused sub, the first time this season the 27-year-old fullback had failed to appear in a Timbers’ MLS match.
“I think my legs needed it, to be completely honest,” Valentin said on Tuesday at the adidas Timbers Training Center in Beaverton, Oregon. “I feel a lot better, now, personally, in terms of just my legs and fatigue.”
Had anyone predicted in January that, come late September, Valentin would be leading the Timbers in appearances and minutes, your knowledge of the team might have been questioned. But seven months into his first season under new head coach Giovanni Savarese, that’s precisely the case. In terms of appearances, Saturday’s day off leaves Valentin even with Diego Valeri on 29 games played (out of 30) this season. And in terms of minutes, his 2,513 are tops in the squad.
“He’s one of the guys who have been most reliable, this season,” Savarese explained. “He has been steady. He has been smart. I think that he has shown a greater level than he has shown before.
“That’s why he earned the starting job on either right or left side, as a fullback. He has always executed the play that we’ve asked him. He was sacrificed himself for the team. That is the reason why he has been rewarded.”
It’s a reward that has been a long time in the making for Valentin, who has already set a career high for minutes played in an MLS season. His previous top mark (2,114) came in 2011, while he was at Chivas USA, drafted directly into the starting lineup as a Generation adidas player. Since then, though, in years bracketing a trip to play in Norway, Valentin had failed to make more than 20 appearances in a season, until now.
Now, though, Valentin finds himself on the end of eight months where his work has been harder than most. From the moment training camp opened this winter, he was fighting for a roster spot. That fight eventually put him in competition for first XI time, but that’s never been guaranteed, especially on a team that had Alvas Powell, Vytas (since traded to D.C. United), Marco Farfan, and has since acquired Jorge Villafaña.
Valentin may have started 28 of the Timbers’ 30 games, this season, but he’s fully aware his fight’s not over.
“I never want to feel comfortable, and with the staff, I never have felt comfortable,” Valentin says. “I think that’s better for my level of play.
“I remember Gio had a conversation with me early in the year, and he said, ‘We need you to be ready at every moment, because we don’t know when, necessarily, you’re going to be called on, but I want you to be ready.’ That was one of the first few days of preseason.”
It was back when Vytas and Farfan seemed to be battling for the left back spot, Powell was the right back, but players like Modou Jadama would get occasional time there, depending on the drill. When training camp began in late January, it was unclear where Valentin would fit on the depth chart. Come week one, though, he was the first player off the bench, making an appearance that would lead to 28-straight starts.
“Obviously, first going into it, I wasn’t any first-choice selection, by any means,” he concedes. “But it’s one of those things where you try to be as good of a pro as you can and just get better, enjoy the process along with it.
“Everyone knows I am a team-first-type player, will always go out there and give everything, but I just try to use the opportunities I’ve been given to make a case for myself – to make it as hard as possible for them to take me off the field; basically, just perform as best as I possibly can so when the XI does come, hopefully I’m someone who they say, ‘We really want him on the pitch.’”
As 2018 has shown, that someone has become Savarese, who said Valentin’s exclusion from Saturday’s match in Minnesota, “was the turn for Zarek to be out.” Even that one day out, though, has left Valentin relishing another return to the field.
“It just sucks, not being out there and fighting,” he admits. “But at the end of the day, my legs got a little bit of a rest. You look forward, and if I can play a little bit against Dallas, it’s going to be even that much more gratifying.”