IMG Academy Soccer program alumnus Zarek Valentin (2006-08), was named 'Man of the Match' as he helped lead FK Bodo/Glimt to a promotion to Tippeligaen, the highest tier of Norway soccer last October. Now, after earning a new two-year deal from Bodo/Glimt after being on loan from MLS club Montreal Impact, Valentin carries heightened expectations heading into the 2014 season.
American Soccer Now columnist Brian Sciaretta documented the 22-year old American's ascent in Norway:
THINGS ARE HEATING UP in the Norwegian Tippeligaen—especially from an American soccer perspective.
Last week Stabaek surprised many by hiring Bob Bradley as its head coach, making him the first American to coach a top-division European team. Mix Diskerud is a likely bet to make the U.S. World Cup roster, and his Rosenborg team are one of the best in Norway this year. Also, Michigan native Josh Gatt, a promising young winger, is returning to health after helping Molde to Tippeligaen titles in 2011 and 2012. Molde also feature U.S. U-20 forward Ben Spencer, who could also begin to see regular first-team minutes after making his pro debut last season.
And now you can add one more name to that list. American defender Zarek Valentin, a key player in Bodo/Glimt's recent promotion to Norway's top tier, is set to make his Tippeligaen debut when the league begins play in March.
Previously on loan from Major League Soccer's Montreal Impact, Valentin, 22, started 27 games at right back for Bodo/Glimt last season. Club management apparently liked what it saw from six-foot fullback and signed him to a new two-year deal.
For his part, Valentin feels good about playing his future home games within the Arctic Circle.
“It wouldn’t say it was necessarily easy in any right," Valentin told ASN of his decision to stay with the club. “Once we got promoted, there’s stuff like the Champions League and the Europa League to consider. They factor into the decision. I felt at home in some sense with the club because I was part of promotion. Once I thought about it a little bit and talked with my family about it, the decision became a lot clearer than it initially was.” Bodo/Glimt coach and former Norwegian international Jan Halvor Halvorsen was very excited to have Valentin return to the club as it prepares to face tougher competition in the Tippeligaen.
“I am very pleased to have signed Valentin,” Halvorsen told the Norwegian website an.no. “He delivered a very good first season for us—so good that several league clubs have definitely seen him. Now he is signed for us, and it was very important. He is a defender type that suits our style of play very well. I want offensive fullbacks, and we have that in Valentin.
"In addition, he is great type also off the field. He found himself very comfortable in Bodo. He thrives in the team and the city. It's really good.”
The mood around Bodo/Glimt is positive these days, mostly because its 2013 season was so successful. Last year the club won the second-tier 1.Division by a wide margin of 15 points. The team also showed well against Tippeligaen clubs in the domestic cup: Bodo/Glimt defeated Odd Grenland before eventually falling on penalties to third-place Haugesund.
While most promoted teams in any European league simply have the goal of staying up in the top division and avoiding relegation, Valentin strongly believes that Bodo/Glimt are capable of much more. In the club’s history, it has never won Norway’s top league but has finished in second place three times (most recently in 2003) and has won the Norwegian cup twice.
“I don't think just staying up would be good enough for our team,” Valentin said. “Personally, if we just stay up I won’t be like ‘mission accomplished.’ That doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not like that. I want to go there and make a mark in the first division.”
A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Valentin rose to prominence at University of Arkon where he played alongside future MLS standouts Darlington Nagbe and Perry Kitchen. In 2010, he won a national title with the Zips and subsequently signed with MLS where he was drafted by Chivas USA with the fourth overall pick.
After one year with Chivas, he was traded to Montreal before being loaned to Bodo/Glimt. After playing in both leagues, he finds it interesting to compare soccer in Norway and the United States.
“It’s a different type of league,” Valentin explained. “I think MLS and a lot of us Americans are very athletic guys. In the Norwegian league, surprisingly I was one of the more athletic guys. But it’s definitely more of a mental, thinking, tactical game in the Norwegian division. That’s not to say Americans aren’t smart when we play. I’m just saying they focus on the tactical side because they don’t have the natural athletic gifts we have.”
The combination of his physical ability combined with the tactical understanding he has gained in Norway has been invaluable for Valentin who believes has improved a good deal since American fans last saw him in MLS.
This year in the Tippeligaen will be a true test for Valentin but he is confident that the manner in which he has improved will allow him to succeed with the increased level of competition. “It’s crazy because you speak to a lot of players and a single coach or a single system can completely revamp a player’s mentality and game,” Valentin said. “I went to Bodo and the system really fit me. I think I’ve really improved on the defensive end by leaps and bounds. I can realize dangerous situations early and react a lot quicker. It’s tough to make up ground when a forward is in behind you as opposed to it reading the situation beforehand so you’re there before the forward.”
Valentin knows has a big opportunity this year. Following the 2014 World Cup, the right back position for the U.S. team becomes wide open. Steve Cherundolo will likely retire from international play and it's not clear if Jurgen Klinsmann considers Geoff Cameron a fullback. Timothy Chandler’s situation is murky at best, and Brad Evans hardly plays the position for his club, the Seattle Sounders.
Valentin has noticed that success in Norway has worked out well for Josh Gatt and Mix Diskerud, and he wants to follow a similar path.
“You look at those guys, and their success, and it catches your eye,” Valentin said. “That does factor into it a bit and it’s something that you want to look for because if you can prove yourself in the European front, I think that shows really well for you. Mix is going to play in the Europa league and I really want those experiences."
"I think that can propel me at club level and the national team level.”