The first thing you notice upon meeting Zarek is his contagious joy. After a career that has seen him play for six different clubs since going pro 12 years ago, the fullback’s demeanor is still as fresh as a bright-eyed rookie and as sage as the experienced veteran that he has become.
No matter what questions you throw at him, Valentin will have something to say. He’s a talker, but one you can’t help but listen to. He speaks with great conviction, usually adding a well-placed joke or two to keep a smile on everyone’s face. While speaking about his integration into our team, this authentic exuberance shone through.
“It’s been fun, personally, getting to know the guys and trying to settle within the group,” he said. “I’m trying to show that I can play, show that I can be a good teammate and be a good friend. I want to show that I’m someone that can laugh off the field as well. It’s been fun integrating myself as quickly as possible, and trying to help the ball stay out of the back of the net.”
Hailing from the Amish capital of the world — Lancaster, Pennsylvania — Valentin grew up playing soccer with Pennsylvania Classics. USMNT super-fans may recognize the club, as a certain left-winger also featured there in his youth.
“Christian Pulisic put them on the map, but I was there way before that, back before it was Pulisic Field and all that stuff,” Valentin said about his youth club.
From his beginnings in Pennsylvania, he made his way down to IMG Academy before heading to the University of Akron to win an NCAA National Championship under head coach Caleb Porter. Simply winning a National Championship is exciting enough, but there was another level to it for Valentin.
“My brother was a professional soccer player, so following in his footsteps was always something that was a dream of mine,” he said. “He won a national championship in college, then went on to play pro, so I always wanted to be like him and emulate him as much as I could on the field.”
The road to professional sports is one that requires significant motivation to traverse. For Valentin, the example left by his older brother was extremely formative and inspiring. However, that wasn’t the only pro athlete that guided his journey.
“I wear number three to this day because of Allen Iverson,” he said. “He’s someone that inspired me because of the way he committed himself, playing banged up, playing every single game like it was his last. Off the court he was very genuine to who he is as a person. He lived life his own way and he was so unapologetically himself, so for me, Allen was someone I could look up to, both in how he competed and how he was off the court.”
While his story is far from over, Valentin has already proven that he has what it takes to live up to his role models. His genuine desire to become a part of the communities he plays in has helped him enjoy his career and reach heights that young players dream of.
Following his time at Akron, he was selected as a member of the 2011 Generation Adidas class, starting his MLS career with Chivas USA. Valentin has featured for four MLS clubs, including Montreal, Houston, and Portland. Though he is a former US youth international player, Valentin officially decided to represent his Puerto Rican heritage in 2020. He has earned four caps for the Puerto Rican national team, scoring a goal in CONCACAF Nations League match last summer.
On top of that already impressive résumé, the fullback made the trip across the pond, playing two seasons in Norway for FK Bodø/Glimt. During his time in Scandinavia, Valentin helped the club earn promotion back to the first division, an experience that most American players never get the chance to accomplish in their careers.
“It was an incredible experience,” he said. “That city is small but they’re very passionate. Obviously, the team has grown to way higher heights than expected, but it’s been awesome to see. I played with some of the guys that are playing in Europa League games and Champions League qualifiers, so I’m just so glad I had the chance to experience that.”
When he steps off of the field, Valentin lives a full life. A big family-man, he spends most of his time with his wife and child, trying to be the best dad he can be to his three-year-old son. When he gets the chance to get a few rounds of golf in, he enjoys hitting the course with his teammates. In another life, some of his other interests may have led him down a different path.
“I always said I wanted to be a pilot comedian, but then I realized that I’m not that funny and stand-up material for like three hours would be terrible,” he said about alternate careers. “So I dropped the pilot comedian bit rather quickly. I’d love to be a sports broadcaster on ESPN. Watching Stuart Scott or John Anderson everyday on ESPN was awesome, so for me, working everyday as a sportscaster would be a dream come true.”
On top of his apparent joy, Valentin clearly cares deeply for others. On multiple occasions, he spoke about the importance of getting to know his teammates, as well as admiring the emphasis on signing good people as well as good players here at MNUFC.
“I’m trying my best to get to know my teammates, get to know their stories,” he said. “I want to know where they come from and get to know their families. For me, those things mean a lot to the success of a team. Developing relationships with my teammates on and off the field has led to more fruitful, winning relationships.”
Unsurprisingly, this trait bled into nearly every answer Valentin provided. In fact, when asked what superpower he would most want to have, he gave an unexpected, albeit fitting response.
“I think it would be a nice superpower to always know what to say to cheer somebody up,” he said. “Like sometimes somebody is going through a tough time and everyone deals with certain frustrations — my wife might be upset, my son might be upset — but to have the power to make them feel better or to challenge them when they need it would be awesome. Maybe that’s the superpower of empathy? Kind of like fortune-telling. Sometimes players need a kick in the butt, or they need you to come alongside them and tell them it’ll be better tomorrow. It would be really awesome to always have the right answer to help get people through the tough moments.”
That has to be the most wholesome answer ever given to that question. What a guy.
If there’s one thing you can expect from Zarek Valentin this season it’s this: he’s going to work extremely hard, and he’ll be smiling the whole time. He not only has a deep love for this game, but a zest for life that any coach would kill to have in their locker room. As long as he’s a Loon, he won’t be letting us down.