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Family, Community, and Soccer: What Zarek Valentin will remember from his four seasons in Portland

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Before he begins to write the next chapter of his soccer career, Zarek Valentin reflects on his time in Portland and how he felt at home

SOCCER: MAY 19 MLS - Los Angeles FC at Portland Timbers

Zarek Valentin had a gut feeling the day before the 2019 Major League Soccer expansion draft that his days in Portland were numbered. Earlier in the week, the Portland Timbers made their protections and the veteran centerback didn’t make the list. Valentin was told that there was a very real possibility that he would be selected in the upcoming draft; when he watched the event unfold the next day, he knew what was most likely coming, but hoped it wasn’t true.

Unfortunately, those gut feelings were all but confirmed the following day, when Tennessee Titans’ running back, Derrick Henry, announced him as Nashville SC’s second pick in the expansion draft. Valentin knew right after he was selected that he was a pawn in a larger scheme, however. Later that day, Valentin’s rights were on the move again — this time to the Houston Dynamo, who traded starting goalkeeper Joe Willis to Nashville to acquire the 28-year old defender.

But that high selection couldn’t take away from the shock Valentin felt when reality finally sunk in. Portland was the city where he got married, had a child, and bought a house. Now he and his family will have to leave the city that he so thoroughly embraced, moving more than 2,200 miles southeast to start over in a new city after four years in Portland.

“I’ll be honest: It took my family and I off guard a little bit,” Valentin said over phone. “My wife emigrated from Canada and found a job and settled. It wasn’t something we were looking for as a family, because she had done so much work and we loved our lives in Portland, bought a house, and had Cameron. But ultimately as a professional, you want to go somewhere where you are wanted. If Houston is going to go out of their way and trade their starting goalie to bring me in, that’s something that I don’t believe has been done in my career before. It gives me a lot of pride that Houston gave up so much to have me be there.”

Valentin’s arrival to Portland in 2016 came under different circumstances. At the time, he was three years into his tenure with Bodo/Glimt in the Norwegian top-flight when general manager Gavin Wilkinson traded an international roster spot to the Montreal Impact in exchange for Valentin’s MLS rights.

When Valentin found out that he would become a Timber if he returned to the United States, he was excited. As an East Coast kid from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that was drafted to Chivas USA and played in Montreal, he didn’t know much about the city of Portland other than the fact that it had a fairly popular soccer team and rabid fans. But on that Timbers team resided his University of Akron teammates Darlington Nagbe and Ben Zemanski, as well as former coach Caleb Porter, all of whom had glowing things to say about the city and franchise. Sometimes after his own games, Valentin found himself tuning into some of the Timbers afternoon matches late at night. Now he would get the opportunity to suit up in green and gold himself.

“Once I heard Portland was potentially an option to go to, my wife and I immediately became interested and excited because that’s just a place that I think a lot of MLS players would be excited to go to,” Valentin said. “Thankfully it worked out at that time.”

In his 100+ games in Portland, which included deep runs into the playoffs and an MLS Cup Final appearance, the moment that Valentin will always remember came in a 2-1 home defeat to the Los Angeles Galaxy. It was in that game that he recorded his one, and ultimately only, goal as a Timber.

“I remember Darlington [Nagbe] doing most of the hard work,” Valentin said with a chuckle. “D made a run, I slipped him in, I continued my run inside, he attracted two defenders, and nobody stayed with me because why would you stay with Zarek when Nagbe has the ball?”

“What I remember after scoring is the eruption of the Army, but also I remember vividly one of the first people there to celebrate with me was Nat Borchers, and that was Nat’s last career game. To share the feeling with Nat, who is a good friend of mine now, and for him to be there with me — like he was for all his teammates — in that joyous moment, is something that I look back on, and I value the friendship we had and the relationship that we had on the field as well.”

In the locker room, it was Borchers, a two-time MLS Cup champion, that mentored Valentin both on and off the field. Borchers taught Valentin some of what he learned from former MLS defender Robin Fraser, who Valentin considers one of the best defenders in league history. Over time as the team started to change, Valentin began to form a kinship with the team’s star designated player, Diego Valeri. Both players’ wives immediately found a friendship, and every Monday during the 2016 season, the two families had dinner together. When Valentin got married in December of 2018, Valeri’s daughter, Connie, was the flower girl.

And of course there is the relationship between Valentin and goalkeeper Jeff Atinella — one so close that they decided to start a podcast together last season. Atinella and Valentin roomed together for a chunk of last year and cite having a similar sense of humor as one of their best attributes, even if their wives might disagree.

“I love goalies,” Valentin said. “Goalies are quirky, interesting dudes. They say ‘goalkeeper union’ because they are all interesting and goofy in their own ways, and I definitely latch onto that and embrace that in their character.”

As far as the podcast goes, the two defenders acknowledged that it fell off due to some unforeseen injuries and the births of two children a season ago, but they hope that it can be rekindled again soon. However, that’s a story for another day — one in which Valentin doesn’t have multiple boxes left to unload in a house halfway across the country.

Over his time in Portland, Valentin seemed to embrace the fans and community just as much as they embraced him. He’s the only Timber to win multiple Community MVP awards, and last season continued his RibbonZ campaign with former Portland Thorn Hayley Raso.

When he was not on the field, he seemed to be a common sight at Thorns games. Over our brief phone call, Valentin talked about his admiration of the 2017 championship team and how he was glad that he could share season tickets with his friend. Next season he plans to attend as many Houston Dash games as he can with his family, who love women’s sports.

“There are some absolute ballers who play for the Thorns and NWSL, and I think that — similar to the way NBA players support WNBA players — MLS players are slowly picking up on that because of the success with the national team, and people are taking that into the success with their club teams,” Valentin said.

It’s been a very busy past few months for Valentin, and the reality of the situation, he says, still hasn’t fully sunken in yet. Moving his family halfway across the country while adjusting to a new system and group of guys is tough, but Valentin acknowledges that it is all part of being a professional athlete. And if there’s any date where everything will become more real, it will be on July 25, when Houston visits Providence Park for the only scheduled time this season.

When that day comes, Valentin plans to take it all in and reflect from the pregame warm-ups to watching the scarves wave during the national anthem, but when that whistle blows, he says he wants to help his new team secure important points in one of the toughest places to play in MLS.

“I hope we get three points, and I hope we send the TA upset at home, because that’s where we’re at now,” Valentin candidly said. “I know I’ll get some flack for that comment, but listen, that’s the game, and we have a lot of mutual respect for the four years I was there.”

Valentin also claimed that he was not afraid; he even told his friends in the Timbers Army that they better come up with their best insults. Of course, those insults and the home atmosphere are a few of the many reasons that he fell in love with Portland when he first arrived in the Rose City.

A year ago, it seemed like Valentin would be in Portland for the long haul and that he was happy here. He talked with pride about getting to carry his newborn son, Cameron, around the pitch for the first time after a win, like he’s seen his teammates do numerous times before. Having to leave behind moments such as these are what makes sports so difficult.

But Valentin is also excited: He’s in a situation where a team traded away their starting goalkeeper to acquire him. He has a roster around him with some of the most exciting attacking players in MLS. Add in a new coach in Tab Ramos, and you have the recipe for a good situation. Before Valentin could get started, though, he had to take a fond look back at his time in Portland just once more.

“I always wanted to make the fans proud of me as a player,” Valentin said. “I think those fans are very special in the way they give their energy, and obviously we grew even closer over the past year with some of the political things that were going on. When fans give you their all, you want to return that favor. That’s what I try to do, and I hope that they view me in that light.”