Loons fullback Zarek Valentin fulfilling childhood dream as a broadcaster

Zarek Valentin held two boyhood dreams: play professional soccer and be an on-air anchor on ESPN’s SportsCenter.

The Lancaster, Pa., native checked the first box with Chivas USA in MLS in 2011, and 13 years later he continues to fulfill that aspiration with Minnesota United, his seventh pro club.

A recent leg injury sidelined Valentin for the short term, but it provided an opportunity for the 32-year-old to explore a possible post-playing career transition to the broadcast booth. Not SportsCenter, but a cousin.

Valentin has provided color commentary alongside play-by-play voice Dan Terhaar during ESPN 1500 radio broadcasts of the past two Loons matches, against Real Salt Lake and Houston Dynamo at Allianz Field.

“I find it fascinating,” Valentin told the Pioneer Press. “I think that you can really tell a story and draw fans into a game in which they may or may not be completely emotionally involved in. Take them on a little ride and go for a little adventure with them. That, to me, is exciting. It’s something I’d love to do.”

The Loons have provided this lab space for other players, most notably when ex-goalkeeper Tyler Miller was out injured for the season but helped out on Bally Sports North broadcasts in 2020.

Valentin wanted his first-ever broadcasts to be as organic as possible, so he pretty much winged it. Obviously, he has ultimate insider status with MNUFC, even going into the locker room at halftime between radio calls, and also holds a vast understanding of MLS.

So, he wasn’t going in blind, and it showed immediately.

During the start of the RSL match, Valentin fired a fastball down the middle with his first pitch, sharing how he grew up playing alongside RSL goalkeeper Zach MacMath with youth club Clearwater (Fla.) Chargers and on U.S. youth national teams. Valentin said MacMath used to play as a forward, so he’s good with the ball on his feet, but that skill might make him susceptible to the Loons’ pressing actions.

It was the type of anecdote and analysis that can be sorely lacking on some telecasts in the second year of MLS’ new media rights deal with Apple TV.

Former Loons TV presenter Callum Williams took notice of a new colleague and sent a direct message to Valentin with words of encouragement. “Heard you did well tonight, mate!” Williams wrote April 7. “Good stuff. Just the first step.”

Valentin replied: “Thanks for the message Cal! Had a blast on the call last night. Maybe one day we can join forces.”

The next Saturday, Valentin threw a changeup to open the Houston match. He jokingly called it the “Zarek Valentin Derby” because he had played three years with the Dynamo before joining Minnesota in 2023. That first-hand experience in Houston also helped Valentin understand the matchup on a deeper level.

For an admirer of the late SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott, Valentin on the mic appears to be “as cool as the other side of the pillow.”

But Valentin is also amped up. Before the Dynamo match, he was buzzing around the press box, being his typical loquacious self, chatting up everybody. It was clear he wouldn’t be at a loss for words on the air.

“Talking is natural,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of people do it. And I have my personal take on things I like, things I don’t like. So trying to implement that and get as comfortable as possible.”

Valentin is also serious about getting better, looking everywhere for possible tips and pointers. His wife suggested saying Loons players’ full names, in case they don’t know “Joe”, for instance, is a reference to fullback Joseph Rosales.

Valentin also pointed out elements on tactics and formation, and wasn’t shy to question what he felt were poor decisions by referees. If he does full-time announcing later, he vowed to do research on players and coaches to share anecdotes like the one he had on MacMath.

Valentin admires Fox Sports’ color commentator Stu Holden as one of the best in the profession; Valentin has spoken to Holden and others about “what makes them good.”

Valentin played college soccer at Akron during its heyday in 2009-10, winning an NCAA tournament championship as a sophomore after finishing runner-up as a freshman. But part of him wanted to attend Syracuse, a famed journalism school, to earn a communications degree and enter broadcasting world.

He was a communications major at Akron, but pro soccer called after his sophomore season, and he switched his major when taking online classes. “My last (in-person) classes were in a studio, reading off a teleprompter and things along those lines,” Valentin said. “You can’t do that when (you’re) Generation adidas or with Montreal or Chivas. But that was always something where I was sitting there going, ‘I think I’d really enjoy this. I like entertaining, I like talking and I like soccer.’ ”

Valentin is progressing in the rehab from a thigh injury this week and is itching to get back on the field, maybe as soon as Sunday’s game at Charlotte FC, but the recent hands-on broadcasting experience has fueled him for more of that side of the game. He cherished the opportunity to put together valuable recordings of him calling games. From the booth, he still felt a part of the game, even breaking a sweat during the first half of the RSL match.

“I think I have a decent eye for the game and also a decent personality — maybe those things combined might help push things in the right way,” Valentin said. “I don’t know. (To be determined). I’m just enjoying it one step at a time.”

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