Grieving Eriq Zavaleta steps up at both ends of the field for Toronto FC

TORONTO – As much as Sebastian Giovinco and his brace deserved the headlines following Toronto FC’s 3-1 win over the Chicago Fire on Friday night, in the end his goals were not the decisive one.

That honor fell to Eriq Zavaleta, who popped up at the back post on a nifty, training-ground corner-kick routine in the 32nd minute to power a Justin Morrow cross into the Chicago goal.

It emerged afterwards that in practice, Zavaleta’s role was usually that of a decoy. But not everything always goes as drawn on the chalkboards.

The goal was just the second of his MLS career, but beyond that the moment held a special resonance for both Zavaleta and his coach.

“Good goal for Eriq and I’m really happy for him because, like me, it’s been a long couple of weeks for him,” said TFC boss Greg Vanney, who is Zavaleta’s uncle.

As he wheeled away in celebration, Zavaleta pointed to the heavens. His grandmother, Vanney’s mother, passed away suddenly last week.

During his halftime interview, Zavaleta explained that the gesture was for her and that a host of family members were on hand as well, amplifying the emotions of the moment. Afterwards, though, he glided right past a question about his goal.

“Good to get the win, that was the most important thing,” said the defender. “We wanted to come home and start rolling, to get three points was important.”

With Drew Moor unavailable due to a cardiac arrhythmia, it has fallen on the young shoulders of Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund to fill the veteran’s crucial role on the Toronto back line. They, as well as Morrow, who has tucked in from his usual wingback position, have stepped up as required.

“I always say the same thing about Eriq: He defends so consistently,” said Vanney. “He understands his priorities, that’s why he’s steady back there. And that’s what you want in a center back. You want to know what you’re going to get every single day that you put them out on the field.

“Nick has been great,” he added. “Shown a real capacity to play, not just on the outsides, but in the middle when we need him.”

Zavaleta was quick to credit Hagglund for adapting to the demands of Moor’s central duties.

“That position suits Nick. He’s an athletic guy, has a good understanding of what is [required]. We’ve been playing this formation long enough, have a good idea of [it],” he said. “We’re able to slot in guys, like Justin, put Nick in the middle. Guys have stepped up, put in big performances, but it’s a credit to how well we understand the system.”

There were a few nervous moments.

“First 20 minutes, they put us in some uncomfortable situations,” admitted Hagglund, “but at the end we controlled the play in front of us.”

Chicago were able to spoil the clean sheet in the 88th minute through David Accam, but without the TFC defense’s efforts, Giovinco’s heroics may have been wasted.

“The three guys in the back, with the help of Steven Beitashour and Raheem Edwards, dealt with a lot and did a really good job,” said midfielder Michael Bradley. “Justin’s versatility and athleticism make for a really interesting combination. Nick has done a really good job organizing and keeping everything under control. Eriq continues to get better with every game; got a big goal tonight. They all continue to come on in big ways, both individually and collectively.”

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