Sebastian Lletget’s third goal of the year for the US men’s national team took place in an empty stadium, during their May 30 closed-doors friendly vs. Switzerland at the Kybunpark in St. Gallen. But the midfielder still capped his celebration with an index finger to the lips, the classic shushing gesture usually brandished at hostile crowds.
While subtle and fleeting, it was nonetheless a sign that he’s read a bit – but only a bit – of the criticism and doubt about his continuing centrality to head coach Gregg Berhalter's team.
"I forget why at that particular moment," Lletget said with a laugh as he recalled that brief show of defiance in a recent 1-on-1 conversation with MLSsoccer.com. "I really don't try and read [the online discourse], because all I've ever seen – I mean, even since I've been playing professional soccer – it's just very hard to find a good thing being said about you out there. So I just like, in a healthy way, gave up on that.
"But I think you do as a player feel what people's perception – or not even perception, what people are probably saying. They're seeing me on the starting lineup, and I'm the only one that doesn't play in Europe. So you kind of know it's coming. … I found a way for it to fuel me.”
Even the loudest public naysaying is easy to shrug off when you’ve earned the ironclad confidence of a coach like he has with Berhalter. The USMNT have played 11 matches thus far in 2021 and Lletget has taken the field in all but one of them (he was rested during the Yanks’ Gold Cup group match vs. Martinique).
Lletget has started matches in which the so-called A team, the full-strength group, is available. He’s been asked to lead younger sides, like the one currently vying for continental hardware this month. He’s played multiple positions in multiple formations and worked alongside a number of partners in midfield. At this point, it seems fair to consider him something like a safety blanket for Berhalter.
“We're showing our dependence on Sebastian again, and how good of a player he is,” said the coach when asked about Lletget’s selection as the Gold Cup roster was announced on July 1.
The US player pool is in the midst of an ongoing renaissance across the Atlantic, as Christian Pulisic (Chelsea) and Weston McKennie (Juventus) headline the waves of talent carving out significant roles at some of the world’s biggest clubs. For some, that might make Lletget’s status as a foundational piece at the LA Galaxy look pedestrian by comparison. But he, too, was once one of those teen phenoms.
“I've also been to Europe, it's not like this foreign place to me. I know what it's like,” he said, “and so that's why I never understood the narrative that goes around.”
A product of Bay Area club Sporting Santa Clara, Lletget was a US youth national team starlet spotted and recruited to London by English club West Ham United. Upon turning 18, he signed his first professional contract with the Hammers in 2010 and seemed to be on course for a place in the first team before a series of setbacks curtailed his progress.
Lletget suffered injuries, missed weeks due to a case of mononucleosis. Perhaps most costly was the arrival of Sam Allardyce at West Ham after the club got relegated from the Premier League in 2011. A famous advocate of direct, physical play, “Big Sam” had little time for the American attacking midfielder on the fringes of the squad he inherited.
“You always have to find somebody that believes in you, doesn't matter how good you are. It doesn't matter how good I was – or maybe in his eyes. We just didn't see eye to eye,” recalled Lletget of his time under Allardyce. “That definitely taught me a valuable lesson about the business of football. It's not always going to be nice and everybody's going to think you're a good player. You're not going to fit in everybody's plans.”
After five years at West Ham, a 22-year-old Lletget moved on in 2015, seeking a fairer shake at establishing himself. And it was the Bruce Arena-era Galaxy who offered it, seeking fresh blood as the dominance of the Landon Donovan-David Beckham-Robbie Keane era wound down.
“All I ever wanted, whether it was the Galaxy, or, you know, some team in Ecuador or some team in Europe, I just wanted an opportunity,” Lletget, now 28, said. “That's all I ever wanted. And it just happened to be the LA Galaxy. And then you find a home and you feel like you're progressing and you're getting better and you're getting recognized for your efforts. So I'm just going to play the cards that I've been dealt. That's literally all I’ve done.”
Lletget has prospered both on and off the field in LA, becoming one of the faces of the Galaxy and building a long-term relationship with pop star Becky G. At some point along the way, the young buck who cheekily dubbed himself “Da Boy” became a man, one ready and willing to shoulder responsibilities for club and country.
Though he’s always open to new opportunities, well aware of the risks of complacency, he’s at peace with where his journey had taken him, regardless of anyone else’s judgments or what-might-have-beens about him, Berhalter, MLS, or the USMNT.
“I’m sure there’s people that probably follow the team, but don't really know much about soccer, and they'll just look at, ‘Oh, this player plays for this team. So he must be doing something good.' And, 'Oh, this guy plays for this team, he’s clearly not deserving. And I don't think that's right, you know what I mean?” said Lletget.
“I just never understood why the people don't empower their own domestic league. That just doesn't really make sense to me. But don't get me wrong – of course, Europe is such a high level, and I’m so happy for the guys that are doing well out there. But you’ve got to empower the guys that are playing on your own soil. And the league isn't what it was 10 years ago. So I think it's important to recognize that.”
Some of Berhalter’s relationships carried over from his Columbus Crew tenure to the national team; that’s where he first worked with starting goalkeeper Zack Steffen and striker Gyasi Zardes. His trust in Lletget doesn’t have that kind of history — just a strong understanding built by long hours of USMNT work over the past two and a half years.
“We first started working with him, it was more about us figuring out how to reach the player,” Berhalter recalled last week. “And once we did that, once we figured out the way to communicate with him, the way to give him confidence, the way to motivate him, he proved that he's a consummate team player. All he wants to do is play for the team – an absolute water carrier, and you need those players on the team.
“Besides that," he added, "he has a high level of skill. So when you can combine those two things, a team player, combined with the skill and aptitude that he has, it's a great combination. And he's more than willing to play in any role we ask of him, always willing to help the team, and he performs at a continually high level.”
There’s a good chance Lletget will be in the starting XI once again when the US meet Qatar in Thursday’s Gold Cup semifinal in Austin (7:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, TUDN). But either way, you can bet he’ll remain one of the first names in Berhalter’s notebook as the World Cup qualifying journey begins in September.
“I've always said, if somebody gives you an opportunity, you just got to find a way to maximize it. And I always try and do that every time I put on the jersey,” said Lletget of Berhalter. “So he's been great with me, but it's also been tough as well, and I mean it in the best ways: It's been challenging since day one. I've had to learn a lot to be on this team. Because it's not just that you have to be a great player and play good. You have to understand your role, and your role keeps changing, and I think that’s the position I'm in now. But it's been very enjoyable.
“I think he's had his own evolution of being the coach from where he started with the national team to now, and fortunately I've been able to grow with that.”