San Jose Jebo

Jeremy Ebobisse would seem to carry an international-caliber résumé. He represented the United States at multiple youth national-team levels and was a standout at the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup, where he scored two goals in three games. Teammates from that cycle like Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent and Luca de la Torre have already made their way into the full US men’s national team. Ebobisse earned his first and only USMNT cap in Gregg Berhalter's first game in charge, a 2019 January camp friendly win over Panama.

"In the hands of U.S. Soccer"

Even with the San Jose Earthquakes wracked by instability in the final days of Matias Almeyda’s tenure this spring, Ebobisse is currently the second-highest scorer among US-eligible players in MLS with 10 goals this season, and an 8.56 expected-goals number that suggests it’s no fluke. The only US-eligible MLSer who’s scored more than he has in 2022 is the USMNT’s starting striker, Jesus Ferreira, with 11 tallies for FC Dallas.

With precious few goals from that spot during World Cup qualifying, the USMNT’s No. 9 role has been a near-constant concern under Berhalter. Surely Ebobisse still holds hope of surging into the reckoning for Qatar 2022 on the back of what’s tracking to be the best individual season of his career, right?

“I don't, frankly,” Ebobisse said flatly in an extensive recent one-on-one conversation with ahead of the Quakes’ Cali Clasico clash with the LA Galaxy on Wednesday night as part of Heineken Rivalry Week (10 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).

“It's about performing for San Jose first and foremost,” he continued. “If something changes, if I'm playing well – and soccer is a crazy game, a lot of things happen, and force reevaluations. But at the moment, no, I don't think I’m there.”

It’s not that “Jebo” is hopeless, or bitter. At age 25, he’ll have future World Cups to aim for. He is, however, a strikingly grounded, self-aware footballer who’s concluded Berhalter has his mind mostly made up at this point – and has learned the importance of properly focusing his own energies.

“It's tough for me to really evaluate it,” said the Bethesda, Maryland native. “Where my [national-team] career is, is really in the hands of the U.S. Soccer Federation. At the end of the day, I need to be able to find joy and success in what I'm doing here in San Jose, and if that translates to something else in the future, then so be it. I would welcome it with open arms.

“But ultimately, they have a group. They've had a group for the last two, three years, and a style of play, and I've got a lot of respect for a lot of those guys. I played with them in the youth teams, U-23s, U-20s etc. And the way that they've handled the pressure of not qualifying for the previous World Cup, the way that they've handled their youth and going against an experienced Mexico side in the beginning of the cycle, and how they've just become the dominant force of Concacaf, it's a credit to them. It's fun to watch them from afar.”

Jeremy Ebobisse during a January 2019 between the USMNT and Panama. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Ebobisse is a thinker, with a keen observational eye he applies to the game as well as the wider world around him. The ferocious intellect that’s made him one of MLS’s most outspoken voices on politics and the pursuit of racial and economic justice also gives him perspective on his own soccer journey.

He can expertly deconstruct his own red-hot 2022 form, for example.

“As a striker, the blessing and the curse is that goals will overtake anything else that you do on the field,” he said. “I see it as a blessing, because when you're scoring goals, and maybe you're not playing to where you want to be at a consistent level, every minute of every game, if you do get that goal, you're able to accept and convey a narrative that you're being successful, that the team is putting you in successful positions.

“And on the flip side, the curse is when you're playing excellent, you're doing all the defensive duties, you're putting guys in great situations, you are holding the ball up, just alleviating a lot of pressure from the team, but you're not scoring goals and the team is not necessarily winning? All of a sudden, you are struggling with failure. And so I think there's been a little bit of both this year.”

"Diminishing returns"

It would be understandable for Ebobisse to harbor frustration about the ways in which his club career has complicated his path to the USMNT. The Portland Timbers traded up to select him with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft presented by adidas after he left Duke University early, then used him sparingly for two seasons, then played him out of position on the wing in order to accommodate a litany of pricey imported strikers.

He is certain that affected the USMNT staff’s perception of him, yet finds balance amid the what-ifs and personal growth moments.

“Looking back, we can all be honest,” said Ebobisse. “Playing left wing, striker, right wing, in a two-front, it did hurt the way that certain people evaluated me. Because a lot of the recurring notes were, ‘we don't know if he's a striker, we don't know if he's a winger. Yeah, he scored goals as a 9, but can he do it consistently over a full season?’

“Playing as a winger as I did in Portland was useful to a certain point. It allowed me to see the game from a winger’s perspective, who is servicing the striker,” he explained. “So it provided perspective, and it allowed me to get touches under different kinds of pressure so that when I did come back centrally, I did have a more expanded array of tools to use. But I think obviously with any developmental curve, you start to hit diminishing returns.”

He says his frustration never reached a boiling point in the Rose City, a happy home where he embraced the local culture and ethos and was wholeheartedly embraced in turn. For much of his time with the Timbers, it appeared his next move would be abroad. He’d long been on European clubs’ radar and PTFC repeatedly rejected bids and overtures, only for the COVID-19 pandemic to hammer the global transfer market. Instead, a trade within MLS loomed last August.

Jeremy Ebobisse POR
Jeremy Ebobisse, then with the Portland Timbers, celebrates scoring in a July 2021 match at Austin FC. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman)

“One moment you're thinking about, ‘is a transfer going to go over the line, is a loan going to happen?’ And then the next second, you're talking about potentially getting traded the next week,” he recalled. “It was a process that was congested and accelerated, from a player's perspective.

“Ultimately, San Jose made it pretty easy for me to get here settled and integrated into the team. The locker room welcomed me really well, Matias welcomed me with completely open arms. It was a different landscape when I got here, something that challenged me in ways that I hadn't been before, adapting to a new system, new demands. You don't always know what you need in your career, but I think it was what I needed at that time.”

Counterintuitively, moving from a perennial MLS Cup contender to an organization that’s wandered the wilderness for most of the past decade offered what he calls “a new lease on life.” As chaotic as Almeyda’s time in charge of the Earthquakes appeared from the outside, Ebobisse found Pelado so charismatic, so personally invested in him that it unlocked unexpected elements of his own psyche.

“He wanted me to almost be more than I knew I could be for this team. And when someone has that kind of confidence in you now, it almost makes you a little nervous, because you want to show them that they're right to believe that deeply in you,” said Ebobisse.

"Culture of hard work"

Almeyda’s breakneck pressing style and reckless man-marking tactics made the Quakes a neutral’s dream, an entertaining mess ultimately undone by errors, blowouts and the breakdown of the Argentine’s relationship with club brass. Yet Ebobisse says his self-belief surged during that saga, his only regret that the group didn’t truly deliver on the special bond they crafted.

“When the results weren't going the way I wanted,” he explained, “I'm so used to just getting really introspective. I don't really want to talk to anyone. I usually go home and reflect and try to fall asleep as quickly as possible. But I'm just replaying missed chances, I’m replaying goals we conceded or bad giveaways.

“On the flip side, a lot of the times when we would come into the locker room, Matias would want energy in the locker room. He would want us to just keep our heads up and to go for the next game, for the next training session. It was almost as if the next session couldn't come quickly enough after a tough loss, because we just had this culture of hard work. It's tough to describe, really, unless you've actually been a part of it. And it kind of goes to the emotional side of things as well.”

While their results have stabilized under interim coach Alex Covelo, San Jose are still looking up at the rest of the Western Conference from last place, at least on total points (19 points, 4W-7L-7D record). No one in MLS has leaked more goals (37 against). Reports suggest a new, permanent head coach could arrive any day, with club-icon-turned-heel Landon Donovan among those in the mix.

Yet they’ve got a few games in hand, Ebobisse is still hitting the net with regularity and with the Audi MLS Cup Playoff places just eight points away, hope springs eternal under MLS’s forgiving qualification format.

“I've been a part of talented attacks before, but I think that while different styles of players, different profiles of players, this attack and front six is as dangerous as any that I've been a part of,” said Ebobisse. “I'm confident that we have the right group of guys to get to the playoff line, and then go on a run.”

The MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi is out there, too. He’s just two goals off the pace set by NYCFC's Taty Castellanos.

“In years past, I might have felt like it was out of reach,” he said. “But halfway through the year, to be in the conversation, it gives you more energy going into the back half.”