REDONDO BEACH, Calif. – A starting role, and a new contract extension, with the five-time MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy. Beachside living in sunny Southern California. Red-carpet appearances with his girlfriend, pop star Becky G. An upper-echelon social-media game. And now, after his US national team debut on Sunday vs. Serbia, a rapidly-developing international career.
US head coach Bruce Arena is even musing about using him to replace the suspended Jermaine Jones when the Yanks resume World Cup qualifying with a must-win match vs. Honduras in his hometown in March.
Safe to say things are going pretty well for Sebastian Lletget.
But barely two years ago this rising star – frustrated and written off at English institution West Ham United – was ready to call it quits.
“I could've given up. I really could have. I really was at a point – before I signed with the Galaxy, I was very close,” Lletget told MLSsoccer.com in a recent conversation at the USMNT's team hotel during this year's January training camp at StubHub Center.
“I don't know, but this was definitely not in the plans. This was definitely faaaaar-fetched,” he added, his eyes drifting skyward as he compared his current prosperity to the drift and dismay at the tail end of his five-plus years in East London.
“I never took no for an answer.”
The pro now known to LA fans as “Da Boy” was one of the United States' bright young things in his teenage years. A standout at Bay Area youth club Sporting Santa Clara, he was spotted by West Ham scouts at age 13, but denied a move for several years as he navigated the path to a European passport via his Italian grandfather.
When the path finally cleared to join the English club's storied academy at 16, he jumped at the chance – departing the federation's Bradenton Residency Program to do so, risking a falling-out with Wilmer Cabrera, the head coach of the US U-17 national team at the time. That decision ultimately helped cost Lletget a place on that cycle's World Cup squad, despite him scoring two goals in three games at CONCACAF's qualifying tournament.
“It was a risky one. I think a lot of people wouldn't have done it as soon as I did it,” Lletget said of his move across the Atlantic. “But thinking back, I wouldn't change anything.”
Winning the faith of the Hammers' academy staff, Lletget climbed the ranks quickly. Changes at the top, however, combined with time missed due to a severe case of mononucleosis, left him a forgotten man.
“It was a bumpy road for a long while. It's not like I could've done anything different, to be honest. I can't look back and [say] 'I would've worked harder,'” recalled Lletget. “I think it was just the circumstances that I had to deal with.
“I learned a lot about the game – the real game,” he added. “As a kid you think, 'if you play good, you're going to get rewarded.' And a lot of the time it's not like that. That's what you have to learn, quick.”
West Ham traditionally pride themselves on playing flowing, attractive soccer and were managed by Italian wizard Gianfranco Zola when Lletget arrived. But as they slipped out of the Premier League and into the Championship under Avram Grant, the desperation to climb back into the top flight led them to Sam Allardyce, a specialist in quick turnarounds known for bruisingly direct long-ball tactics and reliance on veterans.
It didn't suit the compact, skilful Lletget. Nor did Allardyce's predilection for signing new players by the truckload, a tendency that contributed to a recurring allegations of corruption lodged against him and his son Craig, a player representative, over the years.
Fairly or not, similar suspicions would lead to Allardyce's untimely dismissal from his post as England's national-team manager last year.
“I've had two or three managers where I've been written off right away,” said Lletget, chuckling softly and leaving much unsaid when Allardyce's name was brought up. “I think the whole world realized what was really going on, but nobody knew about it back at West Ham.
“The academy, they really were pushing for me. They had a lot of confidence in me and to this day, they're not surprised that all this is going on, because they really saw it and they really thought I was going to be that one that was going to break through. [But] once you go into a first-team environment, it's kind of another department.”
Lletget signed a contract extension in 2013 and made his senior debut in an FA Cup match a year later. But the clock was ticking, and with playing time still eluding him as he entered his 20s, the EPL dream began to feel like a dead end.
“My career was literally at a standstill. And you're tied down by contracts, obviously – you can't just do whatever you want,” he said. “And I was already reaching an age where, over there, if you have no experience, you're finished – you're done. Over there, you're old!
“You're 21, 22 years old with minimal experience? 'If nobody else trusted this guy, why am I going to trust this guy?' Until somebody reaches out their hand. That's what Bruce did.”
That would be Bruce Arena, then in charge of the LA Galaxy, who – influenced by a strong endorsement from his son, Kenny – invited Lletget to join LA during their 2015 preseason training camp in Ireland. The veteran coach liked what he saw, and maintained his interest over months of negotiations and a quirk in the MLS Discovery process so infuriating to Arena that he dubbed it “a blackmail job.”
“They gave me the chance. That's all I wanted,” said Lletget of the Galaxy. “I didn't want any special treatment, nothing. I just wanted to literally get a couple minutes, and that's what they gave me.”
An attacking midfielder for much of his youth career, Lletget would have to carve out his Galaxy place in a less-familiar spot out on the wing. A quick adaptation gave proof of the versatility that has fueled his rapid rise in the USMNT pool, aided by a relentless work ethic that belies his love of Instagram selfies.
Now he finds himself in contention for multiple roles for both club and country.
“I adapted and worked with what I had,” Lletget said, “and sooner or later – just the last six months of last season – I played in [central] midfield and showed what I could do. But I had to do all that first, just to get an opportunity, really, when it opened up. So if that's what I have to do here [with the US], I've done it before. There's no reason why I can't do it again.
“I've really enjoyed being an 8, the link between a defensive midfielder and a No. 10,” he added when asked about his optimal position on the field. “I can really do both sides pretty well and I feel like my teammates, especially, really respect that out of me. They can respect the fact that I can go forward, but I can run all the way back and make a tackle as well – and then do it all over again. I've seen that.”
Lletget was conspicuously ignored by former US boss Jurgen Klinsmann. Yet Arena's return to his old job has kick-started Lletget's international career, which had gone dormant after he was one of the final cuts from coach Caleb Porter's U-23 squad for the ill-fated 2012 Olympic qualifying campaign.
“I wouldn't have wanted it any other way, especially with having Bruce as a coach, our relationship and how it's grown in these past two seasons,” said Lletget of his return to US colors.
“Once I felt that [Arena] really trusted me, I could really feel the difference. It always takes a while – as we know, trust gets stronger with time – and the more and more he could rely on me, it went better for me, and the more I could just express myself, and not have to worry. I have to do the basics right, the fundamentals, and after that I can be myself.”
Coming off the bench in place of Jones at halftime on Sunday, Lletget took his opportunity well, bustling from end to end to earn some of the highest marks of a patchy US performance vs. Serbia. He'll look to deepen that positive impression when the Yanks meet Jamaica in Chattanooga, Tennessee on Friday night.
“I think this is a good first step,” he told reporters postgame at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. “I just wanted to show that I can do this. But moving forward, I think the team itself will take more risks and be sharper in the final third.”
The dream scenario? A significant role when the USMNT's road to Russia 2018 resumes under intense pressure with a pivotal qualifier vs. Honduras on March 24 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, near his childhood stomping grounds. But either way, Lletget doesn't plan to write an ending to this Hollywood tale anytime soon.
“When I do get a chance, I have to show what I can do and prove to my teammates that I'm at this level,” he said. “I'm not going to lie: I think anybody who has a spot now has earned it and has more experience than me, and I'll be the first to say that. I'm going to do my best to be the best that I can.
“I'm still going to work my way up like I always have.”