By the time a player reaches the professional level, it is likely that they have been the best or among the best on any team they play on. That can make the first season in the pro ranks difficult to handle, but patience is often needed to find the success achieved at other levels.
Eriq Zavaleta is learning that in his first season in MLS with Sounders FC.
The 21-year-old Indiana University product has just 15 minutes to his credit through the first 23 matches of the season, but his patience and hard work have instilled confidence from the coaches to include him in the 18-man matchday roster, leaving him at the ready to contribute when they need a goal late in a match.
“It’s tough because every team I’ve been on I’ve been one of the main guys. Coming into a team where you have to be patient and know that there are guys who are right now in the primes of their careers and are better than you,” said Zavaleta, who is playing behind the likes of Obafemi Martins, Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey, among others. “It’s a good thing to watch and learn and a lot of players go through this. It’s something that you have to be able to take and grow confidence through it, otherwise it can be a detriment to your career.”
Early in the season, Zavaleta was searching for playing time as a center back, but a loan spell to the San Antonio Scorpions in the NASL gave him just the confidence boost he needed to get back with Seattle and push for playing time with Sounders FC. While in San Antonio, he netted one goal and one assist in 321 minutes in his move back to the forward position he manned with Indiana, leading the Hoosiers to a National Championship in his sophomore season.
His opportunities have been limited with the first team, but he has taken advantage of his time in the MLS Reserve League, leading Seattle with four goals in 10 matches, including one on Monday against Vancouver.
“The stint down in San Antonio helped him with his confidence and playing time. He just continues to grow and get better with it, he just has to continue to watch and learn things,” Schmid said. “He just has to find the ability to roll off the shoulder of the defender and get a quick release. He continues to work on that and continues to try to improve.”
Along with his time in the NASL, Zavaleta has also worked with Assistant Coach Brian Schmetzer before and after training to work on finishing and to get him extra touches on the ball. Schmetzer served as head coach of the Sounders in the USL for seven seasons, helping develop several players who would go on to have MLS and U.S. National Team success, including Herculez Gomez and Brian Ching.
“He’s done wonders for me in helping grow my confidence and get my feet better and my finishing better,” Zavaleta said. “Ultimately, I don’t have as much talent as some of these guys and I’ve got to work.”
The 25-minute sessions with Schmetzer have gotten Zavaleta thinking like Gomez and Ching, always with a nose for goal in the box.
On July 20 against the Colorado Rapids, he played just four minutes, but worked his way into the box and craftily got position on his defender to flick a header on goal, but it was saved by Clint Irwin in the 1-1 draw. He also managed two goals in a Reserve League match against Chivas USA on July 29.
He has now been on the bench for Seattle in the last seven matches, showing that as his confidence has risen, so has the confidence of his coaches.
“I feel like I’ve been playing well and that’s been seen. I’ve been in the 18 and gotten a few appearances because of it,” Zavaleta said. “I can’t be satisfied with where I’m at. I want to continue to push and at the end of the day, me pushing harder and playing well is only going to make the guys in front of me play well. Those guys are some of the best in the league right now and it helps to push me to get better.”