Lletget earns his chance for US team, delivers at home
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) Sebastian Lletget nearly stumbled after scoring the biggest goal of his life, then went sliding on his knees in celebration across a rain-soaked field as his teammates mobbed him near the corner flag.
What a night for the hometown kid from San Francisco to notch his first U.S. goal. Unfortunately, it ended shortly thereafter because of injury.
Lletget tapped in a rebound in the fifth minute of a commanding 6-0 win against Honduras on Friday night to help his team get right back in the mix to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
He was then replaced in the 18th minute by Alejandro Bedoya after hurting his left ankle in the 15th minute on a slide tackle that earned Honduran defender Ever Alvarado a yellow card.
''He's earned it. People asked me in January camp who was I impressed with and he was the one that stuck out to me the most,'' Bedoya said. ''He's got great technique, great engine. I was sad to see him go down but I was able to step in and help the team out. I'm happy for him he got his goal and I hope it's not a serious injury.''
U.S. Soccer Federation officials said Lletget left the stadium in a walking boot and using crutches. He will miss Tuesday's qualifier at Panama and will return to Los Angeles for evaluation.
Lletget earned his chance with the national team from a coach who has known him so well the past two seasons on the LA Galaxy. Arena started the 24-year-old midfielder in just his third career appearance for the Americans, then Lletget found himself in the perfect place to collect the ball when Christian Pulisic's shot rebounded off Honduran goalkeeper Donis Escober.
What a lift Lletget provided even in a night cut short.
''It was big. We definitely wanted an early goal today to kind of set the tone,'' Pulisic said.
The Americans were 0-2 in the final round of qualifying in the North and Central American and Caribbean region after a pair of ugly losses last November, including a 4-0 embarrassment at Costa Rica that led to Jurgen Klinsmann's firing. Arena returned to the job 10 years after last coaching the U.S.
And Lletget has found his fit at long last after a forgettable, frustrating stint with West Ham. He got in just one game in five seasons with the Hammers, and Lletget told MLSsoccer.com in January he easily could have given up after that experience.
Perhaps he has found his place now, not to mention the boost that comes with what he did in front of the home crowd - his personal home crowd, really - Friday night. When Fabian Johnson suffered a leg injury last week and had to be replaced, Arena decided Lleget would be his choice.
The son of Argentine parents who calls himself ''Da Boy,'' on his Twitter account, he starred for the youth team Santa Clara Sporting Soccer Club mere minutes away from new Avaya Stadium where he and the Americans shined.
Arena called him up to his first camp with the national team in January, then named him in the starting 11 for a much-needed win Friday before the Americans play again Tuesday.
There is renewed hope again of this group earning the Americans' eighth straight World Cup berth, even if it's in comeback style.
When he played in friendlies against Serbia and Jamaica earlier this year, Lletget appreciated the chance to represent his country on the international stage. He expressed his gratitude on Twitter.
''Beyond blessed to see so many mentions and tweets about my debut!'' he wrote, ''y'all are amazing.''
There are sure to be many more shoutouts coming his way after this performance.
Arena provided one.
''He's technically very good, can hold the ball,'' Arena said. ''Physically strong, good pace. He's a good one-on-one player. He's learned how to play a little quicker and with better players. I really think he's got a real bright future. He's only 24 years old. I think he's a player that can play at this level for sure.''