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The WTR Top 20, No. 10: Eriq Zavaleta’s reliability renewed

Fresh from a contract renewal, Toronto FC can bank on the hard-working defender.

MLS: Montreal Impact at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

“Since joining Toronto FC, Eriq has developed into a core member of this team as well as a leader both on and off the field,” said Toronto FC General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko in a press release after the defender signed his new contract this week.

“He has been an important part of our club for the past few years and we are happy to ensure he is back this season as we defend our championships.”

Betzbatchenko nailed it. Eriq Zavaleta has been a crucial member inside TFC’s roster, both on and off the field. He was the piece of the puzzle many MLS teams lack: that underrated defender you can bank on due to his experience and quality, when you are either short in personnel or you want to shape your team in a variety of tactical systems.

In fact, one of the reasons Greg Vanney advocated for Zavaleta’s marriage with TFC to be renewed is his versatility, which enables him to feature in either a three-man backline or a four-man defensive department.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Naturally, as Vanney himself underlined throughout the season, tactical formations are just numbers and it is up to the players to interpret that role in the best way possible. That is relevant to Zavaleta, who, while playing in a three-man rearguard, was often part of a defensive line formed by five players when without ball.

Moreover, he could also fulfill the task of a right back, although you can’t expect him to provide the same overload in offense and distribution as Steven Beitashour or Justin Morrow, perhaps the best pair of fullbacks in the entire 2017 MLS campaign.

Like every player on earth, Zavaleta had his up and downs with the club last year. Let’s face it, we would feel shivers down our spines whenever he went for an aerial duel (probably his weakest characteristic despite being around 6’2”), especially during the first leg of the Canadian Championship against the Montreal Impact and in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final against the Columbus Crew.

MLS: Toronto FC at FC Dallas Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Nonetheless, he deserved to be involved in almost 40 matches under Vanney last season. He was so essential when it came to tackling, where I would also admit that he is kind of a master in it. Zavaleta neutralized so many threats with his last-ditch tackles, mostly thanks to his tactical awareness, which in my opinion he has improved a lot over the years in Toronto.

With Nick Hagglund sidelined for much of the seasont, Zavaleta forged a rock-solid relationship at the back with Drew Moor and the newly-arrived Chris Mavinga.

Moor was basically the Leonardo Bonucci of Toronto. That deep-lying playmaker leaned at the back, ready to trigger his quarterback launch to surpass the opponents’ first line of pressure. Next to him, Zavaleta felt more confident in passing the ball to him without exposing himself to potential threats, in particular against high-pressure sides such as Atlanta United, who were one of the best sides BMO Field saw in 2017.

That Atlanta game witnessed Mavinga’s worst performance in a TFC shirt, with Tata Martino’s players exploiting him from all angles. Yet, the former Liverpool defender adjusted himself to MLS’s rhythm and started to absorb Vanney’s soccer culture: work ethic, tactical awareness and pragmatism. Zavaleta definitely gave Mavinga a helping hand, especially inside the locker room, their inner sanctum.

Eriq Zavaleta scored one goal in the past season, in the 3-1 victory over Chicago Fire in BMO Field, from a header.

With pre-season underway and the season itself just under two months away, TFC supporters do not have to lose sleep over any defensive concerns, as Zav-ah-le-tah is back to business.