CARSON, Calif. – Everything had really fallen into place for Sebastian Lletget, whose meteoric rise after returning to California after toil and trial overseas seemed almost the stuff of fantasy.
Star player for Major League Soccer's flagship franchise? Pop-star girlfriend? US national team starter? Check, check and check.
And now he was back at home in the Bay Area for a critical World Cup qualifier, and the ball was bouncing across the goalmouth and right onto his path.
Lletget's fifth-minute goal started the Americans' 6-0 romp last March 24 over Honduras in their first qualifier under Bruce Arena, and it's unquestionably the most satisfying moment the 25-year-old winger has enjoyed on a soccer field.
His worst moment on a soccer field arrived not 10 minutes later, when a sliding Ever Alvarado clipped him on a sprint up the right sideline, coming down hard on his left foot and sending him tumbling to the turf. Lletget had suffered a rare Lisfranc injury, in which a metatarsal is dislodged from the tarsus (the bones that form the foot's foundation), a painful condition that requires major surgery and months upon months of rehab.
“It's so bizarre,” Lletget told MLSsoccer.com he waded into the LA Galaxy's preparations for the coming season. “It's rare, such a high and such a low. In my hometown in front of my family and friends. First World Cup qualifier, with a coaching staff that's treated me so well, and having a moment like that representing your country. There's nothing better, right? And then something bizarre happens.”
He's gone through all the requisite difficulties and emotions athletes face while recovering from major injury, and watching both of his teams fail didn't make things easier. But what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, as the saying goes, and “I'm definitely not dead,” he says. “I'm still here.”
Like a new player
Lletget celebrates a goal for the USMNT in front of his hometown fans. | USA Today Images
Sigi Schmid and the Galaxy have rebuilt their squad after last year's 8-18-8 debacle, making upgrades on every line – David Bingham, Jorgen Skjelvik, Perry Kitchen, Ola Kamara – and building the kind of depth the team so sorely lacked.
Lletget's return, Schmid says, “is like getting a new player.”
Arena brought Lletget to the Galaxy in 2015, after the San Francisco-born son of Argentine immigrants found the path from West Ham United's academy to its first team closed. He made a splash from the start, and the team missed him terribly last season, when he played just three games before going down with that injury.
“I have such an appetite to get on the field. It's kind of hard to put into words,” Lletget said. “I'm going to do everything for this team. This club has supported me through this whole thing, and I have nothing but good things to say. This is going to be a good year.”
The Galaxy are excited to see what an attack featuring Lletget, Kamara, Romain Alessandrini and Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos can do. Lletget's ability to score or create, his savvy and his knack of showing up in the best spots will be vital for LA.
“His balance is as good as any player I've ever coached. He has outstanding balance,” Schmid said. “He's technically very clean, his first touch is really good and then he has great balance, so it's really hard to knock him off the ball.”
Lletget went to West Ham at 15 and spent six years with the club, making just one first-team appearance, in a lopsided FA Cup loss at Nottingham Forest in January 2014. He was a virtual unknown when he showed in Galaxy camp two years later, but he took the team by storm. He netted seven goals in 20 appearances his first season, five of them in a 4-1-0 stretch of late July into August, and then contributed a goal and eight assists in 31 games – and scored the Galaxy's lone goal in their Western Conference semifinal series with Colorado – in 2016.
Off the field, he enjoyed the LA lifestyle, began a romance with SoCal-born pop star/actress Becky G and became a favorite with fans, who couldn't help falling in love with the guy.
Even Schmid lights up when asked about Lletget: “I love being around him.”
Arena departed after 2016 to take charge of the national team, and he brought Lletget along with him. He impressed in last year's January camp, debuted as a halftime substitute for Jermaine Jones in a 0-0 draw with Serbia in San Diego, then went the distance in a 1-0 triumph over Jamaica in Chattanooga.
“It was sort of like things were lining up, and everything was working out,” Lletget said. “It definitely took a lot of hard work to even get there and to maintain that level, but things still need to fall into place, and it was special because it was the coach who kind of made all this happen.”
His homecoming was something truly special, and the emotion was overwhelming when he put away that ball at the right post after Honduras goalkeeper Donis Escober deflected Christian Pulisic's shot at the left post.
Then, in the 14th minute, Alvarado slid in and Lletget went down.
“I think for the first six months of my post-injury, people had to remind me that [the goal] even happened,” Lletget said. “Literally, when someone asked about that game, I immediately think the negative. Then I'm like, 'Oh my god, that's right, I scored a couple minutes before that.' And I have to replay it in my head.”
"Really bad news"
Lletget's injury kept him out of the entire 2017 MLS season after March. | USA Today Images
Lletget “could feel my bones not being in the right places,” but he was convinced he'd rolled his ankle. By the time he'd reached the locker room, it had ballooned, and he knew it was serious. He flew down to Los Angeles for tests, and doctors couldn't find the break they expected.
“I was in the MRI like for an hour,” Lletget said. “They went through it three times, and they couldn't really find anything.”
It looked like a bad sprain, and everyone celebrated.
“Although I don't get to go to Panama [for the next qualifying game], I'm going to be OK,” he said. “And by the next cycle of games, I'll be ready. But I'm not walking.”
Ivan Pierra, the former US national team trainer who heads the Galaxy's sports science department, sent Lletget to see a specialist. More X-rays were taken, this time as Lletget put weight on the foot.
“You could see immediately, especially in the X-ray, that there was some bone damage and that the joint was just on a different [plane than it should be],” Lletget said. “It was kind of like what you see in the movies. [The doctor] came in and sat down and said, 'This is really bad news. We're sorry, this is going to be a long recovery.'”
Lletget had never heard of the “Lisfranc injury,” in which metatarsal bones are displaced from the tarsus, and when he asked around, nobody knew anyone who'd had it before.
It required three surgeries to repair the foot; the first in early April and second in late June were planned, and an additional procedure was done in August to remove hardware that was causing pain every time he touched a ball.
He rode around on a scooter for a couple of months, keeping weight off the foot, and then wore a boot even longer. By early October he could jog, he was running full speed in November, and come December he could cut.
“When I first got injured, it was, 'Oh, October you're going to be 100 percent,' and little did I know,” Lletget said. “It was nobody's fault [that it took longer], it was just the way the recovery process was. We pushed it as much as we could, we weren't holding back.”
He spent the offseason building his strength, reacquainting himself with the ball, and pushing through barriers.
“There was no offseason for me. My offseason was this whole year,” he said. “That's really what it was. It was so weird, because I was forced to not do anything. Your whole life, coaches are like, 'You've got to work harder than everybody else,' and then somebody's like, 'OK, we want you to do nothing.'
“It's mind-blowing. And I'm sure a lot of guys can relate. But it does make you stronger. I'm out there now, and just being out there on the grass is the best.”
Lletget missed the opportunity to build on a breakout season with the Galaxy. | USA Today Images
The Galaxy sure are glad to have Lletget back. Last season, his injury was among more than a dozen that crippled the side, which lacked the depth necessary to offset the losses. LA won just twice in their final 19 matches, skidding to the worst finish in club history, at the bottom of the overall standings.
It was tough to watch, but there were plusses for Lletget.
“I was close to all the guys, and every game it was just kind of dreading going into the game,” he said. “And toward the end, it's kind of like you just want to wipe this season clean, but there's still eight games left or 10 games left. As an injured player, your mentality is 'oh, they need me,' or something like that, whatever you tell yourself as a player. But it was really tough to see the guys go through that type of year.”
Things weren't going to get better, so there was no rush to bring Lletget up to speed.
“That was major for me,” he acknowledged. “There wasn't that extra pressure in myself and from anybody else. It was more the opposite: 'OK, let's be honest, we might not make the playoffs, and it's going to be a long offseason, so we don't want you to push yourself any more than you need to right now, because you're going to have all this time.' I was grateful for that.”
It was harder watching the national team sputter at the end of its World Cup qualifying campaign. After the win over Panama in the penultimate qualifier, Arena checked in on Lletget and reminded him that he was still very much a part of the team. He, like everyone else, figured the US would do what was required in the finale against Trinidad and Tobago to book their ticket to Russia.
“That was heartbreaking,” Lletget said. “It was a perfect storm. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, and it just didn't align. You feel helpless. I literally didn't know what to do with myself. ... And I watched the game, but I was kind of flipping the channels between the Argentina game [and the U.S. game]. I thought the Argentina game was even more [crucial] beforehand, because Argentina could have been out, and with my family background, of course, I'm [following it closely].
“Maybe that's the wrong mentality, because I should have thought, 'Oh, guys, still need to pull through in Trinidad,' and as soon as the goals kept coming in [for Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras and Panama], I was freaking out. And you feel helpless.”
"Everything is going to go right"
Lletget is preparing for a return to the field in 2018. | USA Today Images
When the Galaxy last week opened preseason camp, Lletget was ready to go but told to take it slow.
“We have to be smart and we have to be careful with him in preseason,” Schmid, who took charge of LA last July, said during the first week of work. “Because when you're out that long, what ends up happening is he feels good and you do too much and all of a sudden this gets injured or that gets injured. We're going to be really cautious with him.”
Lletget gets it, but that doesn't make it easy. He's champing at the bit.
“I feel good, and I did the first part of the session [during an early practice], and I was like, 'Hey, Sig, I feel really good, even though what we talked about, let's just ...,' and he has to put his foot down. I understand. I just got to remind myself. It's not easy. I can tell myself that a million times, and it's hard in the moment.”
He's more involved each day – the Galaxy have trained this week in Tucson, where they open their preseason schedule Saturday afternoon vs. Real Salt Lake – and hopes to be sharp by the March 4 opener at StubHub against Portland (10 pm ET | MLS LIVE). It might take some time to be at his best.
“I don't think the fans should expect him to necessarily be in the starting lineup opening day,” Schmid said. “We want to make sure that we bring him along, because he's a super huge piece for our team.”
Lletget says he's optimistic about the coming season, says it's “back to the basics of just enjoying the game again,” and he's setting simple goals.
“It's hard to go beyond just stay fit and do my part, but I can't wait to get that starting spot again and just build on that,” he said. “I feel I will. I feel like everything is going to go right, but it's going to take some time.
“It's going to be frustrating at times. It's going to be a lot of great moments, but it's also going to be a lot of 'OK, I'm glad you're doing well, but we're going to have to pull you to the side just for a minute.' It's going to be that ongoing process.”