Eriq Zavaleta is a proven goal scorer in the college ranks and is currently wrapping up a season that has already seen him score 16 goals in 20 games during the season. That scoring rate was enough to see him named a unanimous choice as the Big 10 Offensive Player of the Year. His 16 goals were also double that of the next highest scoring output in the conference and have him among the favorites to take home the MAC Hermann Trophy as the top player in men's college soccer.
The numbers that he has put up in his two years at Indiana speak for themselves. His 16 goals as a sophomore were complimented by 3 assists and showed impressive improvement on the 10 goals and 5 assists that he racked up as a freshman. He was held off the score sheet in Indiana's tournament opening game against Xavier but his side still claimed a 4-1 win and he was certainly a lively player as he managed to get a pair of shots on target and was credited with an assist. If his team is hoping to go further they will need to have Zavaleta at his very best when they take on Notre Dame (Sunday @ 3 EST) in the third round of tournament play.
Playing against the Irish will be a very good test of where he stands as they will no doubt be paying extra close attention to Zavaleta. The Irish boast a very impressive defense and a pair of the top keepers in Will Walsh and Patrick Wall. The Irish only conceded 18 times this season before blanking Michigan State to start their tournament campaign as the number 1 seed. If Zavaleta can put in an impressive performance and get his name on the score sheet against the Irish it will only further cement the fact that he is one of the top players in the college ranks.
Heading into the 2013 draft Zavaleta stands out as one of the top forwards that could be on the board. It still remains to be seen if he will end up signing a Generation Adidas deal but if he does, most feel that he would become one of the top forwards heading into the draft. Top Drawer Soccer's first mock draft had him going second overall to Chivas USA well ahead of any of the other forwards expected to go in the draft. They will certainly not be the last mock draft to put him near the top of their list either as his numbers really jump off the page when looking for potential early picks.
The fact that Top Drawer Soccer had him going to Chivas USA is interesting because Zavaleta has previous connections with the club and at one point it was suggested that they might seek to sign him to a home grown player deal. He trained with Chivas over a couple of summers but as The Goat Parade explains, since he did not spend a year with the academy and he played for a national team before joining them, he would not be eligible for a HG deal at any point. They go into more details that are worth reading to help understand the home grown player rule and how a player like Jose Villareal would be able to sign for the LA Galaxy but Zavaleta cannot for Chivas.
In any case, their lose could be the gain of another team in the league. Chivas could very well take him at #2 in the draft but with his proven goal scoring abilities Toronto FC would be wise to at least take a long hard look at him. TFC do have Danny Koevermans and Eric Hassli on the books but neither is really a long term option and as we saw towards the end of last season when Quincy Amarikwa, Ryan Johnson, and Andrew Wiedeman were leading the attack the club could do with another reliable scoring option.
One of the positives that many will point to about Zavaleta is that he has a similar versatility to Andrew Wenger. Like Wenger, he has spent time training as both a forward and a defender but there is one key difference. Zavaleta has played as a forward his entire time at Indiana and though he has served as a defender at different youth levels for the US national program and while at Chivas, there are very few who would suggest he should be a defender when he moves to the next level.
Wenger spent his first two years at Duke playing as a central defender before moving to play forward in his final season. He would score 17 goals that year for Duke winning the Hermann Trophy and launching himself to the top of a lot of draft boards. His impressive work as a defender with Duke was not forgotten leaving many to debate where he would be best used at the next level. There seems to be far less such debate when it comes to Zavaleta though as he has made a name for himself as a forward in the college ranks. Chivas might still look at him as a possible defender but for a club like Toronto who will have primarily seen him playing in the college ranks he will have caught their eyes as a forward.
His versatility should help to make him a better forward in the long run as it seems to have already made him a more intelligent player. His ability to shake off two or three defenders and find the back of the net was proven time and again this season and was made possible by his ability to be one step ahead of the defenders and out smart them. Add to that the fact that he has shown the ability to finish in a variety of different ways and he has the tools needed to make the jump to the next level.
On the physical side of things Zavaleta comes in at 6 foot 1 and 185 pounds so he is a good size for a 20 year old attacker. He has enough size and strength to fight off defenders when he needs to and combines that with decent pace. He is by no means blazing fast but the fact that he often finds himself in the right position and can slip away from defenders just long enough to get a shot off makes up for that. He uses his size to his advantage on a regular basis which suggests that he should be ready to make the transition to the physical style of play that is common in MLS.
There really are very few knocks that I can offer on his game at this point in time. Having spent time around the academies of various MLS clubs, he was with Real Salt Lake and Columbus as well as Chivas, and in the US development system where he spent time in the residency program, he should come right into a team and be ready to deal with the demands of the professional lifestyle. It is that background and his style of play that have me thinking that the jump from NCAA to MLS will actually be smaller for him and he should be ready to contribute right away if he does come out of Indiana in 2013.
The Hoosiers program that he is a part of is one that has a fairly long history of producing talent at the professional level. The most recent alum to make his mark in MLS is Will Bruin who was selected 11th overall by the Houston Dynamo after scoring 18 goals during his junior season in 2010. The school has also been home to the likes of Pat Noonan, Jay Nolly, Jacob Peterson, Nick Garcia, Caleb Porter, Lee Nguyen, Kevin Alston, and Ned Grabavoy.
Under Todd Yeagley, a former Columbus Crew player, the program has consistently been producing quality professional players. Yeagley took over as the head coach in 2009 having returned to the school he played for during college to take on an assistant coaching role several years earlier. He got into the coaching ranks as a volunteer assistant during his fathers final season as head coach at Indiana. Both Yeagley's have proven to be successful head coaches for Indiana and are a big part of all the MLS level talent that has come out of that program.
It is yet to be seen if Zavaleta will forgo his final two seasons at Indiana and turn professional this off season but it seems likely that he will. Staying in college longer will likely do little for his development and with his draft stock currently quite high it is not like another year will do much to improve that either. If he does go pro he might just owe his college coach a thank you for shifting him back to being a forward as it is a move that has already paid of for both Zavaleta and the Hoosiers.