PORTLAND, Ore. - It had been a while since the last time Zarek Valentin and I got to chat in person, but it took only a few seconds after I walked into the Timbers' locker room at Providence Park for him to come over and say hello.
I'm just about certain that we hadn't seen each other since the Lancaster native left Montreal for Norwegian club Bodø/Glimt, first on loan and then on a full transfer. He crossed the Atlantic in March of 2013, some three and a half years ago.
Call it the power of social media, or call it the power of working for a news organization that covers Valentin's beloved Philadelphia Eagles. Whatever it was, he recognized me right away, and I was glad he did. He's a good guy, and even if he isn't a starter for the Timbers at the moment, he's clearly comfortable in Portland both on and off the field.
When you joined the Timbers earlier this year, I joked on Twitter that you were going to run the city dry of Oreo cookies. Your love of them is famous.
Well, the funny thing is, if you look on the floor, there are actually pieces of Oreo there. After the game, Voodoo Donuts [a legendary Portland establishment] caters, and I picked up an Oreo donut. I saw Caleb [Porter, the Timbers' coach] repeatedly step on the Oreo crumbs.
What's it been like out here so far?
Ah, it's been fun. The group is a great group to come in to and was really welcoming, so it made my transition really easy. Not to mention that the fan base in the city is really welcoming to new players. I've absolutely loved every second of it. To have these guys on our side and to be part of a culture like there is in Portland is something special.
How is it playing now for Caleb? He was your coach in college at Akron, and again on the U.S. under-23 men's team at the 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament.
The familiarity with everything is nice. At training, when it comes to the way sessions and everything are set up. The communication aspect of it can really go a long way, a lot more than players sometimes realize with a coach.
How often do you get home, if at all?
I haven't been back to Pennsylvania at all. I miss the Whoopie Pies. I miss the pretzels. I saw my family when we played at the Red Bulls [in July]. Sadly, I missed the D.C. trip [in August], so I didn't get to see them then. We play at Philly next year. So I won't get home until about Thanksgiving.
But I obviously keep in touch with everybody, of course, and luckily, there's a bunch of guys who played in Philadelphia here [Chris Konopka, Jack McInerney and Amobi Okugo]. So I can chat with them a little bit about whatever it might be.
- Have you turned any of them into Eagles fans? I know Jack McInerney remained a big-time Atlanta Falcons fan when he was in Philadelphia.
No, Jack is still hardcore for the Falcons. Amobi, I don't know what team he supports. But Chris is a South Jersey guy, so obviously he's on the Philly teams. We've already talked about watching games together. There's a bar in Tigard [a suburb of Portland] that we're going to go to. It's nice that I went from watching Monday night NFL games at 3 a.m. in Norway to now 5 o'clock in the afternoon.
- You grew up with another former Union player, Andrew Wenger, in Lancaster. D.C. United coach Ben Olsen, who was a great player, is from Harrisburg. Bobby Warshaw and Josh Gros grew up in Mechanicsburg and went on to solid professional careers. Antietam native Corey Hertzog was a star at Penn State, and bounced around a few MLS clubs before settling in the USL.
Now there's Christian Pulisic, the superstar teenager from Hershey who came out of the same PA Classics youth club that you and Andrew played for as kids. And there's another PA Classics alum in Germany - and another Lancaster native at that - in Russell Canouse. He went to TSG Hoffenheim in 2013 as a 17-year-old and now he's on loan at VfL Bochum.
That's quite a collection of players to have come from a stretch of small cities and towns in central and eastern Pennsylvania. When you were growing up, could you have imagined this happening?
For some reason, southeastern Pennsylvania in general has produced a lot of good players. I don't know what it is in the water, or whatever it might be. We had the opportunity to play for FC Delco*, but obviously didn't take that. I'm sure Christian did the same thing, I'm sure Russell Canouse did the same thing as well. In the end, probably for me and for them, it came down to travel, realistically.
[* - FC Delco is now Continental FC, though plenty of people in the Philadelphia region still inadvertently call the club by its old name. Alumni include Olsen, Jeff Larentowicz, Jeff Parke and Nicole Barnhart.]
I'd think so. PA Classics is closer to Lancaster, right?
Much closer. PA Classics is a 10-minute drive from our house, as opposed to - I keep wanting to say Rocket Sports, but it's YSC Sports in Wayne. Delco used to train there. You figure it would be two to three times a week training, and at 6 o'clock, so you have to hit the traffic there. It's probably an hour and a half out there and back.
- And that's from Lancaster. Try it from Philadelphia.
Yeah, exactly. The Schuylkill is just a disaster. You're better off walking or biking. So it just became a bit of a travel issue. But I don't know. It's been pretty cool to see the progression. I met Christian in Seattle when he came up with the national team [for the Copa América Centenario quarterfinal against Ecuador]. We spoke a little bit. The familiarity of it kind of made me laugh.
I know Russell pretty well. We always hang out in the winter. And obviously, Andrew is one of my closer friends. It's been fun seeing everybody and their progressions, and seeing the facilities change.
At the end of the day, there's always going to be hidden gems in any city that need to be spotted. Whether it's Lancaster, Pa., or Portland, Ore., or Eugene, or even if you're in Hershey or Allentown or Harrisburg. There's always going to be hidden gems outside of the big cities, outside of the MLS youth clubs, and stuff like that.
It's great to see, and obviously I give a little extra fist pump when those guys are doing well, because there's so much familiarity.