For the Zavaleta family, soccer is a family affair.
The game was nearly inescapable from a young age, so it should come as no surprise that Eriq Zavaleta committed himself to the family business. His father, Carlos, instilled a love and passion for soccer from the day he was old enough to kick a ball. Suffice it to say, Carlos wasn’t just another dad on the sidelines.
“He grew up playing in El Salvador until he was 18 when he moved to the States,” Zavaleta says. “When he arrived, he had the chance to play at UCLA where he had a lot of success. He had a few pro ventures in the NASL and indoor soccer leagues until his knee problems forced him to retire.”
Of course, his father wasn’t the only influential figure in his life on the pitch. Zavaleta had a few other role models to look up throughout his childhood that helped to shape his career path, including none other than his uncle and current Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney.
“I’ve been playing the game since I was three years old,” he says. “To have my dad and his brother play soccer at a high level—being teammates at UCLA—and to have Greg play in MLS and the national team, it grew a passion within me to try to replicate the success they had.”
It didn’t take long for Zavaleta to make a name for himself, shining at the state level before embarking on a collegiate career in his home state of Indiana. The choice to stay at home may seem like a no-brainer for some, but it was a decision that turned a few heads. After all, Zavaleta’s footballing icons all shared a common bond as UCLA Bruins. It would have seemed the logical choice for Eriq to follow in his family’s footsteps and continue the family tradition, but he had other ideas.
You learn a lot from difficult moments. You just have to see every challenge as an opportunity to get better.
“I had an offer from UCLA, but ultimately I decided to go to Indiana,” he explains. “It’s a school with a lot of tradition, a history of success. I wanted to go win; winning has been at the forefront of my mind since I was a little kid. It was difficult for me to say no to UCLA just because of the history my family has with that program, but ultimately I wanted to make my own path.”
It didn’t take long for that move to pay dividends, as Zavaleta helped to lead the Hoosiers to some of their most successful seasons in recent history.
“Four or five guys from the team that my dad assembled when I was growing up ended up playing with me at Indiana,” Zavaleta says. “We were sort of the golden generation of Indiana soccer, and it all culminated with us winning the National Championship. So to win in my home state playing alongside the guys I grew up with was pretty special.”
Leaving college after his sophomore season, Zavaleta made the leap to Major League Soccer, joining the Seattle Sounders as the 10th overall pick in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft. And after a lifetime of standing out, the 20-year-old found it hard to make his mark.
“My parents instilled the mindset in me from a young age that nothing comes easy,” he says. “But for the first 17-18 years of my life, everything did come easy, so I didn’t have much to overcome. Then when you get to the next level, it’s an entirely different situation.
“I got to my first preseason in Seattle, and I’ll be the first to admit that I struggled. That was a team that needed to win now, so they moved me back up to forward where I had played at Indiana. But at that time, I was competing for minutes with Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, so I had a really tough time getting into the team.”
Throughout the struggles and position changes early in his MLS career, Zavaleta leaned on his support system to guide him through.
“I scored a ton of goals in college, but my dad and Greg felt that my ceiling was higher as a centerback. That was the path that I took based on how I felt and the advice of my respected elders.”
A stint with Chivas USA saw him settle in to the league, vindicating the move. But his time in California didn’t last long, as Toronto FC came calling shortly thereafter.
“I remember thinking ‘Here we go again,’” he admits. “It was my third team in three years, but it was another opportunity to prove myself.
“As my dad would say: ‘Make sure they have to put you on the field.’ He’s still someone I rely on even to this day. He’s the first person I call after every game to talk about how things went.”
Nowadays, Zavaleta has quietly become a rock at the back for the Reds. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s made the success that much sweeter.
“For the first time in my career as a pro, I came into a season on day one expecting to be a starter,” he says. “It means a lot.”
His family continues to be a source of strength, a fact that became readily apparent during a league match in 2017, just days after his grandmother's passing.
“I look back at that goal now and feel like it’s no coincidence,” he says of his headed strike against the Chicago Fire at BMO Field. “There were definitely heavy hearts that day for Greg and myself. As much as that was a big game for us in the standings, it was an even bigger one for me because I wanted to give my family and mom something to smile about. To not only get the win in front of her, but to score a goal—something I used to do all the time but rarely do anymore—was special for me. I looked up at her after scoring because I knew she would have been the most excited person in the stadium that night.”