Friday August 28th, 2015

Having spent so many seasons playing most of his soccer in front of teammates, coaches and perhaps a few groundskeepers or club staffers at Chadwell Heath, it was only natural that Sebastian Lletget listened closely the first couple times he heard a large, live crowd scream his name. Or, at least, something that sounded kind of like it.

It first happened on June 20, when Lletget, a second-half substitute, scored his second goal in as many games as the LA Galaxy thumped the visiting Philadelphia Union. He coolly slotted a feed from Gyasi Zardes inside the right post and jogged toward the corner flag, his arms and index fingers raised and his ears open. Lletget was in the starting lineup four days later when the Portland Timbers came calling. The midfielder opened the scoring this time, then celebrated by slapping the blue crest on his jersey as he faced the supporters behind the north goal.

When a Galaxy player hits the net at Stubhub Center, public address man Michael Araujo announces the goal using only the player’s first name. The fans fill in the rest.

So Lletget, who’d spent the past five years playing in relative anonymity, listened. He still laughs about what he heard.

“The first couple of times, I heard every sort of way someone could say it,” he told this week. “It was like a wave of echoes around the stadium, and all these different types of ways to say ‘Lletget’."

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It wasn’t the fans’ fault that the correct pronunciation (leh-JET) didn’t come naturally. While many in the U.S. soccer community had seen his uncommon name in print over the years, there never was a formal introduction. The San Francisco-born son of Argentine parents left California in 2009. He was capped a handful of times by the U.S. U-17 national team and had been scouted by West Ham United while playing youth soccer in the Bay Area.

His pro career, and his adult life, began in London.

There, he trained and waited and trained some more. Gianfranco Zola was West Ham’s first-team manager when Lletget landed in England. Avram Grant was in charge when Lletget signed his first pro contract in September 2010, the month he turned 18. Sam Allardyce then took over in 2011. Lletget played with United’s reserves and made a few appearances on the first team bench, but for the most part, the Chadwell Heath training ground was more of a home than the stadium at Upton Park.

In five years at West Ham, Lletget played in one game with the senior squad, a 5-0 FA Cup loss at Nottingham Forest in January 2014. There were no loans, no managerial epiphanies and no lucky breaks—nothing to free him from the rut. Back in the U.S., Lletget was a name without a face, a soccer ghost whose career had stalled before it started.

“It was a crazy time over there, mentally. It was just challenging. It was nuts … the love for the game was always there, but whether I enjoyed it as much, to be brutally honest, it was tough,” Lletget said. “I felt comfortable that I improved that I was good enough. I was ready. The guys were like, ‘I don’t know why they don’t give you a chance. One of the guys even asked Avram Grant, ‘Why isn’t Sebastian playing?’ because I was doing so well in training. I looked ready. I felt it. And I just shook my head. There’s five years of that, just literally getting pushed to the side. It was tough.”

Lletget’s long story, which has taken a suddenly spectacular turn in LA, is one of a young man who had plenty of reasons to lose confidence in himself and his faith in others, but didn’t. He doesn’t take all the credit. But he was smart enough to take the advice he was given.

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“You have to tap into a part of yourself that just says, ‘Forget everything. If this doesn’t work out, I tried it.’ It’s all or nothing,” he said. “I tried a lot of stuff, on a personal level, just to get me through that tough time—sports psychologist, life coach, parents’ support. I really did all of it. So maybe, at some point, I’m feeling the benefits of all that time I put in speaking to people and hearing their thoughts. Now, I’m just on autopilot, letting it ride.”

Lletget may have felt forgotten, but the Galaxy were keeping tabs. They actively scouted West Ham’s reserve matches and reached out to Lletget‘s agent in January. Coach Bruce Arena’s son, LA assistant Kenny Arena, was familiar with Lletget from his days on the men’s soccer staff at UCLA and helped lay the groundwork for a trial when the MLS champs visited Ireland for a February friendly.

“I can see why they won. It really is like a big family here,” Lletget said of his time training with the Galaxy. “You feel like you’re not an outsider, even though I was. I felt so much more comfortable, and that transitions onto the field.”

There was a meeting of the minds, but Lletget’s signing was delayed as MLS drafted and implemented a new set of rules governing the acquisition of players from outside the league. LA ultimately had to pay the New England Revolution $50,000 for Lletget’s discovery rights, West Ham granted his release and in early May, he finally was a Galaxy player.

“I think he’s a player that will obviously help our depth in the midfield and hopefully he can develop into a good player in our league,” Bruce Arena told the club website a few days later. “We’ll obviously need to see him in our environment for a while before we can determine exactly where he’s going to fit in, but we think he’s a player with good potential.”

Offered an opportunity, Lletget seized it. Arena’s “a while” lasted about a month. Lletget, now 22, started and scored that day against Portland and has been a fixture in left midfield ever since, starting nine consecutive MLS matches.

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He now has seven goals and two assists, and he ranks seventh in the league in goals per 90 minutes among players with at least 10 appearances.

And no one will wonder how to pronounce his name after last Sunday’s “DP Derby” against New York City FC, during which Lletget snatched a significant chunk of the spotlight from some of the biggest names to ever grace an MLS field.

His 70th-minute goal represented a fraction of his contribution to the 5-1, nationally televised rout. There’s no question that the likes of Robbie Keane, Giovani dos Santos and Steven Gerrard offer a player a bit more room with which to work, but there’s also no doubting Lletget’s confidence and creativity. He can carve out space and time with the flick of his foot, and he has knack for sniffing out the chink in a defense’s armor. Lletget’s relationship with left back Robbie Rogers already borders on the telepathic, and his technique and showmanship on the ball, from the feints and no-look passes to the back-heel that set the table for Keane’s second goal, is of the sort that leaves crowds chanting your name even when you don’t score.

It’s more than skill. It’s the confidence that never waned.

“Maybe that’s why Bruce likes me,” Lletget said. “I think you have to have a little bit of arrogance on the field. I’m a nice guy, down to earth, don’t want to show off at all. But on the field, you can’t have mercy for the other team. You have to be ruthless.”

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​Lletget believes he could have provided something similar in England, and he does not think for a second that playing for the Galaxy represents any sort of reduction in pressure or professionalism. That is Gerrard to his right, after all, and Keane in front of him, calling for the ball and then telling the press in June that Lletget “has some quality” but “sometimes, he just has to learn how to get rid of the ball quicker, which I’ve spoken to him about.”

The expectations at the club that claimed three of the past four MLS titles are real. They’re the foundation of a mentality that Lletget described as, “We have to win. We’re going to win.” He knows that if he fails to meet a certain standard, he could lose everything he waited to achieve. He knows if he succeeds, people will hear about it.

“It’s amazing when you see something from such a far distance away, and then it’s suddenly at arm’s length,” he said.

There are some mental gymnastics involved, finding the comfortable balance between appreciating and enjoying his nascent success and becoming distracted or spoiled by it. Lletget can’t afford to stumble. He’s too close both to where he wants to be and to the frustration he left behind. He admitted that his performance during his first game in San Jose, a 3-1 loss on June 27, was sub-par. He spent too much time focused on the crowd that night, wondering how family and friends in attendance were taking it all in. The key, he said, is to embrace the moment quickly, hear them yell your name, then forget it and move on.

“People are constantly saying, ‘You must regret going [to England].’ And it’s like now that I look back, I would do it all over again because I learned so much,” he said. “Top players, top pros—I learned the right way. And you know what? As a person and a player, everything that’s happened to me is just so sweet because I know what it’s like to be right at the bottom. And it helps me control everything when, I wouldn’t say I’m at the top, but I’m having a good time.”

He enjoys life in Redondo Beach—“I’m a Cali guy all around. It’s awesome,” he said—but spoke like a seasoned vet about the 24/7 discipline required of top professionals. He spends spare time sketching (he’s gotten into drawing portraits) and curating his Instagram feed. The adventures of "Da Boy" feature a lot of ironic posing, pointing, Blue Steel and bare chests and elicit all the locker room derision they deserve, Lletget said.

“I get s**t for it every day. I don’t mind setting myself up for it. It’s great,” he said. “They know I’m not like that, like this person [portrayed] on social media. I’ll go in the morning and say, ‘Check my photo, man. You’re going to love it!’ And I know they’re going to hate it. It’s one of those things. I love the jokes.”

Lletget is a part of this locker room—already—in a way he never could have been at West Ham, where he was the American kid who couldn’t get a game. And he hopes to keep that going for a while. He said he’s already talking with the Galaxy about a deal for next year (his contract, which pays a base salary of $95,000 this season, will enter an option year in 2016) and he’s trying not to get too caught up in the conversation about his inevitable national team call-up. He’s flattered, but not anxious.

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He pledged to be more focused on the right things when LA faces the surging Earthquakes on Friday evening at Avaya Stadium. No family, no friends–“like we’re playing in Columbus,” he said. The Galaxy (13-7-7) lead the Western Conference, while the Quakes (10-10-5) have won three straight and are back firmly in the playoff race. It’s a rivalry game. There’s history and animosity. And it will be the 20th official match of Lletget’s pro career.

“I always wondered, ‘How am I going to get there,’” he said. “Should I even be worrying about that? Just work hard, do what you have to do and then, it just happened. It’s amazing. Now, I feel like anything’s possible. Anything. I used to watch the national team on TV, now it’s becoming a little more real to me that next time, I might actually be there. I might win a championship. I can see that happening, and being part of it.”

“It took me a while to get here,” he said. “But this is only the beginning.”

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