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Toronto FC defender Eriq Zavaleta gets El Salvador national team call-up

Following in his father's footsteps, Toronto FC defender Eriq Zavaleta has been called up by the El Salvador national team.

Following in his father's footsteps, Toronto FC defender Eriq Zavaleta has been called up by the El Salvador national team.

The 28-year-old centre back is slated to leave for El Salvador on Sunday, the day after Toronto's MLS game in Columbus, for a national team camp ahead of key World Cup qualifying games June 5 at the 207th-ranked U.S. Virgin Islands and June 8 against No. 128 Antigua and Barbuda in San Salvador.

El Salvador, ranked 69th in the world compared to No. 70 for Canada, currently stands second at 1-0-1 in its first-round CONCACAF qualifying group — behind Antigua and Barbuda on goal difference. Grenada (No. 160) and Montserrat (No. 180) are also in the group.

Only the group winner moves on.

The Indiana-born Zavaleta was part of U.S. Soccer’s under-17 residency program and played in the 2009 U-17 World Cup. He was also part of the American under-20 team pool.

"Just to get a taste of even the (international) youth level was an incredible experience," Zavaleta said Wednesday from Orlando. "I remember thinking to myself when that all ended 'I don't want this to be the end for me, I want to keep going. I want to experience something like this again.'

"And so now 12 years later, to finally be on the (verge) of experiencing it is a huge honour. Its something I've been dreaming of." 

Born in El Salvador, his father Carlos Zavaleta represented the Central American country at the youth level. He moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 18, playing for UCLA and then professionally for the Los Angeles Skyhawks and California Sunshine in the American Soccer League and Phoenix Inferno of the Major Indoor Soccer League before taking up coaching.

He now runs the Indiana Soccer Academy.

"It's going to be some interesting emotions for sure," Carlos Zavaleta said of the prospect of seeing his son in El Salvador colours "I'll be filled with tremendous pride and it will remind me of the times when I played there. It's really going to be exciting and I hope to attend at least one of his games if it's possible. Most definitely I'll be watching, for sure."

Carlos Zavaleta coached former Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney back in the day in Arizona and married Vanney's older sister. Vanney now coaches the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Eriq Zavaleta, who had been in contact with several El Salvador coaches in the past, said he decided early last year to pursue it. So he started the process of getting the necessary papers, which took time given the pandemic.

"Finally I was able to get that paperwork finished and the passport in my hands, just a couple of months ago," he said. "It also happened at the time when the national team was getting a new head coach."

That's Hugo Perez, who was born in El Salvador but moved to the U.S. when he was 11 and went on to earn 73 caps in American colours.

Perez played professionally for the L.A. Aztecs of the National American Soccer League and for the San Diego Sockers of the NASL and MISL. He also played professionally in France, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, and El Salvador.

With important World Cup qualifying games looming, Zavaleta said "it felt like the right moment in time for me and for the national team."

While Zavaleta visited more than 20 Central and South American countries as a U.S. youth international, he has not been to El Salvador other than stopping in the airport en route somewhere else.

He's been working on his Spanish in advance of the camp.

While most of his immediate relatives moved to the U.S. at around the time his father's family did, he still has some distant cousins in El Salvador.

Zavaleta is in his seventh season with Toronto. He has made 139 appearances in all competitions, eighth on the club list and just three behind former Italian star striker Sebastian Giovinco.

Whether Zavaleta will take part in the CONCACAF Gold Cup remains to be seen. El Salvador has been drawn in Group A with Mexico, Curacao and a qualifier in the tournament that runs July 10 to Aug. 1.

TFC resumes MLS play June 19.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2021.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press