TFC defender Eriq Zavaleta to wear enemy colours in World Cup qualifier at BMO Field

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TORONTO — BMO Field is normally home to Eriq Zavaleta. But the Toronto FC centre back will be in enemy colours Wednesday when El Salvador takes on Canada in World Cup qualifying play.

The Indiana-born Zavaleta qualifies for El Salvador through his father Carlos, who was born there and represented the Central American country at the youth level. And Eriq, a former U.S. youth international, has become a fixture at the heart of El Salvador since joining the team earlier this year.

He knows he will see another side of BMO Field on Wednesday.

"It'll be different, for sure," Zavaleta said from the El Salvador team hotel in Toronto. "Coming out of a different (locker-room) door. And coming on a bus to the stadium and wearing different colours, against the fan support of the home team. Those things will all be different.

"But I'm excited just to be able to play in front of these fans, in front of my family and friends here in Toronto. I'm excited to play against this team."

"I've watched this Canada team grow from a team who wasn't expected to do anything to now a team who's expected to go to the World Cup," he added. "They have expectations now. They have good players who play not only domestically in the MLS but also players who play in Europe. So I think it will be a good test for us."

Zavaleta has been to BMO Field before as a visitor, early in his MLS career. He started for Chivas in a 3-0 loss in Toronto in September 2014 in what was Greg Vanney's first win as TFC coach.

"It feels like forever ago," said Zavaleta.

"I remember those (away) games but not all too well," he added. "It will feel very unfamiliar to be on the other side."

Zavaleta has won 10 caps for El Salvador, playing in a backline alongside centre back Ronald Rodriguez and fullbacks Alexander Larin and Bryan Tamacas.

El Salvador, ranked 64th in the world, opened the final qualifying round with scoreless draws at home against the 10th-ranked U.S. and No. 63 Honduras at Estadio Cuscatlan in San Salvador.

"If you look historically throughout the qualifiers, getting points at home is really important and so I think we're not satisfied by two points," Zavaleta said. "But at the same time the first game was against the United States, which is one of the top teams in CONCACAF. I I think if you'd asked us before, we would accept it. But now, obviously, every game becomes more important.

"We're content with not giving a goal and keeping us in games but we know we need to score goals in order to win games," he added. "And in order to get points, we need to win games. That's the focus now."

No. 59 Canada tied Honduras and the U.S. by 1-1 scores in its first two final-round matches.

El Salvador's defence has been impressive in 2021, with nine shutouts in 12 competitive matches. Only Mexico (1-0) and Qatar (3-2), at the Gold Cup, and Montserrat (1-1), in first-round World Cup qualifying, breached the El Salvador goal.

El Salvador blanked Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago at the Gold Cup and recorded clean sheets against Grenada, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis (twice) as well as the U.S. and Honduras in World Cup qualifying play.

Zavaleta's father moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 18, playing at 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.

Zavaleta Sr. took in El Salvador's two most recent games, in his first visit to the country in 45 years.

"It was incredible for him and for me to see him in the stands," said Eriq. "For him to go back and see his hometown house and to see the fans and the support they have for the team and everything was an incredible experience."

The El-Salvador-U.S. game particularly struck home.

"He said he sang both anthems and got emotional in the second one because the whole crowd was singing it. Just a lot of pride for both countries. He's got a lot of love for both countries so to be able to watch that game was special for him."

Eriq said the anthems at the game in San Salvador were among the best he has heard, second only to "here in Toronto for big games when the whole crowd sings it."

Zavaleta said there is a "new sense of hope" with the El Salvador side.

"And we're trying to pay it back to them on the field in a big way."

El Salvador qualified for the World Cup in both 1970 and 1982, exiting after the group stage each time.

Zavaleta played in El Salvador's first-round wins over the U.S. Virgin Islands (7-0) and Antigua and Barbuda (3-0) before helping El Salvador reach the final round of qualifying with a 6-0 aggregate victory over St. Kitts and Nevis in the second-round playoff.

The 29-year-old scored against Antigua and Barbuda, and was handed the captain's armband when skipper Marvin Monterroza came off.

He also started all four of the team's Gold Cup games.

Zavaleta, who had been in contact with several El Salvador coaches in the past, decided early last year to pursue switching his international allegiance. He started on the necessary paperwork and got his passport in time for the June 2020 international window, allowing coach Hugo Perez to call him up.

In his seventh season with Toronto, Zavaleta has made 148 appearances in all competitions, seventh on the club list.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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