Eriq Zavaleta took a chance on himself.
When the Sounders sought to loan out the second-year forward at the beginning of the year, there were interested teams in the lower leagues as well as MLS. The safe path for consistent minutes, of course, would have been in the second-tier North American Soccer League, but Zavaleta was determined to stay at the highest level.
After weighing options, Chivas USA was determined as his destination — a seasonlong move that would involve a position change to center back.
“I belonged … in the league,” said Zavaleta, who won’t be eligible to play Saturday against the Sounders due to MLS rules on intraleague loans.
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“I knew that I was going to be able to get a chance, and I trusted myself that I could take that chance. It may have been more of a risk to stay in the league without guaranteed playing time, which maybe I would’ve gotten at the lower levels, but it’s worked out so far.”
That chance Zavaleta speaks of came earlier than expected. Shoulder and elbow injuries to starter Bobby Burling after Week 2 provided an opening in the lineup, and Zavaleta slotted in alongside former U.S. national team captain Carlos Bocanegra.
He has played all 360 minutes since. Not bad for someone who played just 31 minutes as a Seattle rookie.
“There were some growing pains at first, but I’m starting to get more comfortable,” Zavaleta said. “I feel like I’ve earned a little bit of respect around (MLS) that I can play this position and I can play in this league.”
Some of that comfort comes from resolution to an issue that has followed Zavaleta since the day he was drafted No. 10 overall by the Sounders in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft: Is he a forward or defender?
Seattle coach Sigi Schmid claimed from Day 1 that Zavaleta projected best as a center back, and that is where he started practicing his rookie season. Midway through the year, though, he moved back to forward — where he starred in college at Indiana — and eventually led the Sounders with four goals in the MLS Reserve League.
Before the loan, Schmid made sure Zavaleta understood that Chivas wanted him as a defender first, setting up his third change since college.
“It’s been a journey trying to find out what position I was,” Zavaleta said. “I talked to so many people and so many coaches who have varying opinions. It was time, I felt, to make a decision for the long term on what I wanted to do and where I felt was best for me. The opportunity came up to play center back at Chivas, and I’ve had success.”
Zavaleta, while fully committed to the success of Chivas, has admitted he still feels like a Sounder — particularly since he is set to return to Seattle, which owns his MLS rights, after the season. He has felt continued support from Sounders fans and still roots for the Rave Green.
That said, he is also glad MLS rules prevent a potential conflict of interest Saturday
“It’s a tough situation because loyalties lie on both sides,” Zavaleta said.
• Team captain Brad Evans has been deemed 100 percent healthy after missing four weeks with a calf injury. A bruise suffered a Week 2 loss to Toronto developed into a hematoma, and perhaps rushing his recovery led to a setback, hence the delay.