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Q & A With Zarek Valentin

Zarek Valentin, a defender for the U.S. U-20 MNT and Akron, just helped the Zips win their first NCAA championship and first championship in any sport for the university. Valentin flew straight from Santa Barbara (which hosted the NCAA College Cup Final Four) to join the ongoing U.S. camp in Sunrise, Fla., for two training sessions per day and two friendlies against Canada. caught up with Valentin to talk about Akron’s title run, what it’s like to have an older brother who is also an NCAA champion and the transition back into a national team camp. What was the experience like winning a championship with Akron?
ZV: “It was beyond amazing. We really set our goal the day after we got back (after losing the championship in 2009 on penalties to Virginia). The next day our team had a meeting and said, “you know we had a great year but we fell short and next year we really want to set our goals and get back there and especially win it.” Technically, it was December 14, just over a year ago, that we set our goal and said we really want to go back and win it the following year. Luckily, everything fell into place and we played really well and got to the final and succeeded, so it was great.” How important was it to you to win the championship after falling short in 2009?
ZV: “It was almost a little bit of a personal thing. Missing a penalty kick last year I felt a lot of the pressure and the load on myself. You can’t blame it all on one person, but I felt a big weight on my shoulders and I wanted to play well and put our team in a good spot. Winning was a huge relief because a lot of the community in Akron put a lot of focus on us and to come through with it was just amazing for us. You can’t even describe it. It felt that good.” What was it like to go from celebrating straight to the U-20 camp?
ZV: “I talked to [U-20 head coach] Thomas [Rongen] and he was very understanding about being with the team. The team flew out a little bit later than we did on Monday night, but I got to spend time after the game with them. It was great that we got to spend a majority of the following day with them as well- especially some of the seniors we won’t see again- to say goodbye, recap the memories and just talk to them. I think Akron is doing a parade and a welcome back party for the team and Perry [Kitchen] and I are going to miss out on that, but you’ve got to sacrifice some things in order to be successful and hopefully the national team can help us long term. We understand that, and we’re happy Thomas gave us the chance to take an extra day to really savor that time with our team.” How are you feeling after two tough games this weekend and now a week of training camp ahead?
ZV: “Not too bad. My teammates always used to call me the Energizer bunny, which is kind of fitting because I’m usually the most energetic person and it doesn’t take me too long to recover. I have a little jet lag but it’s almost gone now and we’re going to do a little jog and stretch today. By tomorrow I should be feeling great and ready for a week of training and hopefully a successful two games here. I pride myself on being quick to recover and having my muscles being ready for almost anything, especially if it’s playing two games in a weekend, training another week and another two games in a weekend. I like to be able to play my best throughout all of those games.” What is it like to be in camp with some of the guys you played against in the NCAA Final Four tournament?
ZV: “I sat with [Michigan forward] Soony Saad at meals today and I sat next to Dylan Mares who is on the Louisville team. It’s not as bad as people think. They’re both really cool guys. They’re relaxed and fun guys to be around. We don’t really talk too much about the game because it’s not the easiest topic to talk about. I know that especially after last year; I’ve been there. So it’s not the easiest thing to talk about but they’re still really cool guys and now we’re on the same team, and we’re fighting for the same goal. So there’s a unifying factor as well.” Are you finding you have more in common than you thought with the college players you previously faced now that you’re all on the same team?
ZV: “I knew Soony a little bit. I didn’t know Dylan at all. It’s funny, they are cool guys and they have essentially the same goals; to do really well in college and hopefully go on to a professional career in the future. They are especially nice guys off the field as well, really good people, so that also helps make things easy.” Your brother Julian also won a NCAA Championship with Wake Forest and was a part of the youth national teams for some time. How has having a brother so involved in soccer helped shape your game?
ZV: “It’s been amazing. It’s really a pleasure to have him. A lot of people don’t have a brother who can give them advice on a daily basis and help them through challenges. After losing last year, I called him for advice. This year he was going through his things in Tampa after he moved there and sent me a picture of his national championship ring and said, “This is your time and you need go out and win one.” I basically set that as my phone background for months at a time and looked at it every day and really wanted to get mine. Things fell into place and it was such a big accomplishment. I called him afterwards and he said, “You got yours buddy and congratulations, I’m really proud of you.” That means the world to hear him say that. That means the absolute world to me.” What type of advice does your brother give you?
ZV: “In a way it’s about leading by example. I look at how he prepares for games and events and how he goes about things. A lot of the qualities he has as a player are things I need to improve on and try to grow. Some of the things like leadership, defensive qualities, and the intangible stuff that players need. I want to slowly, over time get a better grasp of those. It’s more about the character side of things, like being humble, make sure you’re working hard, make sure you prepare, make sure you do the right things and if you do the right things it may not pay off right away, but in the long run, doing the right thing pays off.” What are you looking forward to during this U-20 camp?
ZV: “I want to get back in the cycle. I haven’t been to a camp in a very long time because of the college team and so I’d like to start getting used to the flow of training and the way camps go. I want a little break after this to rest my legs for a little bit, but I know there might be another camp that I will hopefully get invited to in January. For qualifying, I want to fight for a spot in the roster and if I get on the roster then keep trying to push myself to maybe get a starting spot and just keep trying to raise the bar. But I look at it in the short term, not looking towards the World Cup, looking more towards qualifying as of right now.”