CARSON, Calif. – Emmanuel Boateng's homecoming of sorts has worked out splendidly, he figures, if only because it's put him in proximity with one Steven Gerrard.
The 22-year-old Ghanaian speedster, whom the LA Galaxy signed last month from Sweden's Helsingborgs IF, has a thing for the Liverpool legend now manning LA's midfield.
“Gerrard has been my hero,” Boateng said. “I haven't told him this, but he's been my hero since I was 11. Big Liverpool fan, and he's the reason why I have about 20 jerseys of him, posters in my room, and all of that. It's just great, coming here and having him tell me what to do in sessions and complimenting me.”
The Galaxy hope the compliments will continue. Head coach Bruce Arena's offseason rebuild has brought in far bigger names – Nigel de Jong, Ashley Cole and Jelle Van Damme from Europe, and MLS veterans Dan Kennedy, Mike Magee and Jeff Larentowicz – but Boateng is the newcomer who offers LA something completely new: true explosiveness.
Think Kekuta Manneh. Or Fabian Castillo. LA's haven't had this kind of burst since Cobi Jones was in his prime.
“Yeah, I guess you could say that. He's got explosive speed, for sure,” Arena acknowledged. “Speed comes in a lot of ways in the game: it's technical speed, it's mental speed, it's physical speed. We've got to try to bring all three of those components into play with him. If we can do that, he's going to be very dangerous.”
Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza has gone up against Boateng in training. “I don't think in my eight years we've had many of him,” he says.
“[He's like players] in this league that's seen on many other teams: He's just fast, explosive with the ball, he's a lefty, and I think he's definitely going to help us this year,” DeLaGarza said. “Even on 1-on-1s and getting behind defenses is going to be huge for us.”
Boateng has a history of sorts with the Galaxy. He came to Southern California for high school, attending prestigious Cate School as part of the Right to Dream Academy, which has placed so many fine Ghanaian soccer players in Santa Barbara. He was the Gatorade National Player of the Year at Cate, played briefly at UC Santa Barbara and for the Premier Development League's Ventura County Fusion, and then signed for Helsingborg in 2013.
“I've watched [the Galaxy] since I was here in high school, so I know a little bit about the history,” Boateng said. “I've come to a lot of games.”
He considers Southern California his second home.
“I was lucky enough to find a great host family, the Schwartzes in Santa Barbara, who was there as my family,” Boateng said. “We've been close ever sense. Even when I was in Sweden, I would come here. We had two breaks in the year; I would spend one of the times in Ghana and the other in Santa Barbara with my host family.”
His mentor at Helsingborg was former Sweden star striker Henrik Larsson, the head coach, who “gave me a lot of pointers that some other coaches wouldn’t have because they didn't get to that level” as a player.
“My first year, there was a lot of injuries I tried to play through and made it worse,” Boateng said. “I learned to be patient, the whole business – how it works – and how to carry myself. And Henrik Larsson gave me a better insight of the game, made the game more fun for me.”
He wasn't happy about his playing time at Helsingborg, and when the Galaxy contacted his agent, Richard Motzkin, he was overjoyed.
“It was going to be one of the clubs on my list to look at, so it was great that they contacted us first,” he said. “I told my agent to put that out and make sure it works. So that's how it all works out. That quick.”
He figures to compete for time on the left flank with Sebastian Lletget and Magee, with others also in the hunt for minutes, and says he can “complement” the club's stars and use his speed to “help the team where they need it.”
“I think he's put himself in the discussion now – and it's very early – to push guys,” associate head coach Dave Sarachan said. “When those minutes come, whether it's as a starter or a reserve, you make the most of it.
“He still has a lot to learn tactically, I think, and understand how we play and his positioning when certain players have the ball. That's OK, it's early.”