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Former striker Eriq Zavaleta a welcome addition to Toronto FC backline

TORONTO — Eriq Zavaleta used to dream up goal celebrations. He needed them as a high-scoring forward for the Indiana Hoosiers.

Now a defender for Toronto FC, he has other responsibilities. So he can perhaps be excused for confessing he didn't know what to do when he scored his first goal as pro on the weekend in Toronto's 2-1 loss in Seattle.

"As ridiculous as it sounds, I probably had a new goal celebration every game in my college career — from doing a scuba dive to doing a cartwheel to all the nonsense that I was doing in college that I could never do anymore," a smiling Zavaleta said after practice Wednesday

"I had fun with it then. For now I'm just happy running like a crazy child down the sideline."

Along with 20-year-old midfielder Marky Delgado, the 23-year-old Zavaleta has been one of Toronto's unheralded successes this season.

Zavaleta came over from Seattle for a 2016 second-round draft choice. Delgado was taken in the 14th round of the Chivas USA dispersal draft.

Delgado, who did not see action in the first 13 league games of the season, has been a constant in the last 13 matches. After being on the field for one minute in Toronto's first nine games, Zavaleta has played in 14 of Toronto's last 17 games.

"He's a very intelligent player," Toronto coach Greg Vanney said of Zavaleta,. "He reads the game, he sees what's going on. He has a pretty good sense of what the game needs at any given time."

"He's a good soccer player," he added. "And he's a cerebral player which lends to his consistency."

Vanney should know. The TFC coach is Zavaleta's uncle and he was once coached by Zavaleta's father Carlos, a former El Salvador international defender and indoor pro player in the U.S.

Consistency has been lacking in the Toronto backline this season, in part because of the constant turnover. Toronto currently ranks 18th in the league in goals against at 1.69 goals a game, which is actually an improvement over earlier in the season.

Toronto brought in experienced Polish defender Damien Perquis this season to partner with veteran Steven Caldwell at centre back, with Zavaleta, sophomore Nick Hagglund and French rookie Clement Simonin in the wings.

But Caldwell lasted just two games, eventually retiring due to a string of injuries. So GM Tim Bezbatchenko brought in Moroccan international Ahmed Kantari and versatile Josh Williams to bolster the defence.

All but Williams, who needed time to get game-fit after joining Toronto, have been injured at one time or another.

Fullback has also been a question mark. Toronto's best right fullback has turned out to be left fullback Justin Morrow. The improved play of Ashtone Morgan has allowed Morrow to move but with Mark Bloom out for the season through injury, there is little cover.

With Morrow absent due to his wife giving birth, Vanney only had Williams, Zavaleta, Simonin and Morgan available Saturday in Seattle.

Aside from injuries, there has been inconsistent performances.

Perquis has ranged from being a hard-nosed enforcer at the back to a liability with a temper. The verdict is not yet in on Kantari. Williams, meanwhile, has proved to be a welcome steadying influence.

It's unfair to judge the European imports on such a small playing sample. And defending is a team job, not just the mandate of the backline and goalkeeper.

But the question remains — does Vanney know his first-choice back four?

"I think we're getting very close to knowing exactly who that is and I have my opinion on exactly who that is ... Once we get everybody healthy and a full selection of guys in there, then we can hopefully get some consistent runs with the guys that we believe are our best group."

With three games in six days — New England on Sunday, away to New York City FC next Wednesday, and Colorado on Sept. 19 — Vanney hopes he will soon be able to make that decision.

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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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