March 24, 2017 should have been one of the greatest nights of Sebastian Lletget’s life — and for the first 14 minutes of the US national team's match against Honduras, it was. But the night ended with what would eventually reveal itself to be a season-ending injury, and the most dramatic example of how Lletget has been able to persevere over some unusual hurdles and misfortunes.
Lletget, who grew up in Northern California, was playing before a hometown crowd that fateful night at San Jose’s Avaya Stadium, literally in front of family and friends. He’d earned a start for his national team in a crucial World Cup qualifier. And, in the 5th minute, he’d scored the opening goal in what turned out to be a 6-0 romp, temporarily restoring American hopes of making the World Cup – seven months before they were ultimately dashed.
A sliding tackle from a Honduras defender changed Lletget’s night and more — less than 10 minutes after he had celebrated a goal, he was down on the turf, subbed out shortly after that, and had to leave the stadium on crutches.
"You work for 10 years-plus for moments like that, and then in a split second, things change," Lletget said. "It was a roller coaster. Injuries are part of a game, but I don’t wish it on anybody."
Initially, the doctors thought it was a bad sprain, as MRI tests didn’t reveal a break. But as Lletget told MLSSoccer.com’s Scott French in February, he "could feel [his] bones not being in the right places," and a specialist determined it was a Lisfranc fracture, a rare break in which one or more metatarsus bones are displaced from the tarsus, the cluster of seven bones which make up the base of the foot.
For Lletget, it meant three separate surgeries and a recovery period of close to a year, in which he’d regain the ability to walk, then run, then play. Initially, he was disappointed to not be part of the World Cup chase and the just-started 2017 season with his LA Galaxy. But it was also initially overwhelming to come back from an injury this rare.
"It was incredibly difficult to get back to even walking. It was just the type of injury where nobody really knew much about it; we learned on the go."
It did, ultimately, provide Lletget to opportunity to come back with wisdom gained and character built – a hallmark of his life, dating back to when his Argentinian parents immigrated to the U.S. to start a new chapter of their lives.
Sebastian Lletget's MLS Flight Path
Born in 1992, Lletget came to the attention of U.S. Soccer and MLS through a more circuitous route than most. He excelled with club team Sporting Santa Clara before getting a call up to U.S. Soccer’s famed U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Florida. From there, Lletget took a road less traveled for promising young Americans, signing with the West Ham Academy in London. There, he trained alongside other Premier League hopefuls, getting a perspective rare for Americans.
Lletget recalled that a scout who worked with him in a coaching clinic and followed him through a tournament thought he’d be a good fit in London. "He eventually came over to my dad and asked if the family was up for me going, to accompany me as a minor," Lletget said. "It wasn’t easy to say, you know, let’s just take your kid to England! So we went, initially on a two-week trial, and it all happened so fast. From my first day, my first training, it went well, and they told me I was going to be signed."
He described getting established in London as "a process," noting that The Football Association (the sport's English governing body, which enforces rules regarding overseas players) "didn’t make it easy for me."
"I was there back and forth for years because we were waiting on my Italian passport to come in," he said. "It took so long to gather all that information. If I could have moved over right away I probably would have, but there was a lot of back-and-forth. especially since I was a minor."
"It was amazing," he says of being in the West Ham system, first as a youth player in 2009, and then starting in September 2010, as part of the senior squad. "It was more than an experience. I just learned so much, especially in the last three years I was there."
While there, he learned lessons about the value of intangibles, which helped prepare him for future adversity.
"I learned more about the game and the intensity needed, of course," he said. "I think I already adopted to all that; it wasn't necessarily about getting ready to play in the Premier League. I thought I was ready."
Though Lletget felt he had the physical tools to compete, he learned there was much more than athleticism to success in such a high-profile, high-stakes league, including the politics involved with player-manager relationships.
"You think, 'As long as I play well, all my dreams are going to come true,' and that's not necessarily the case. You can't just give up, and you can accomplish what you want. But you have to think about the things that you don't realize are part of the game."
Coming in the last year of his contract, and realizing that he likely wasn’t in the plans of firmly established manager Sam Allardyce, Lletget seized upon an opportunity to return to the United States, with the Galaxy.
"My agent rang me up and said [former Galaxy and USMNT coach] Bruce Arena was interested, he’d heard about my situation, they had just come off winning the championship, and they were keen on seeing me. I was up for it! At that point, I was just trying to get an opportunity and experience. I knew it was going to probably be the best move for me, so I went, simple as that."
Though he did grow up rooting for the Galaxy’s chief rivals — fondly remembering San Jose Earthquakes games as "my opportunity to be inspired" by MLS professional players — he also welcomed the chance to come back to his home state and continue his career.
"I grew up hearing ‘Beat LA,’" he said. "But everyone welcomed me with open arms. I love this club, I have so much respect for it, and it’s been going really well for me. It definitely felt like I was in the right place at the right time. Even though it was I was coming off a little bit of a dark place, having wanted to succeed in Europe, little did I know that MLS would grow as such a rapid speed. It’s definitely much more challenging now; you can see it if you watch the games."
Lletget was able to contribute right away: In his debut 2015 season, he scored 7 goals and added 2 assists in 20 appearances (with 17 of those being starts), and in his next year, he started 23 matches, appeared in 31, and produced to a goal and 8 assists.
Though the Lisfranc injury took him off track during a 2017 that was disappointing for the entire Galaxy franchise — especially in light of the club's longstanding MLS success — Lletget’s returned to an improving Galaxy team.
"I'm really proud of that because you know I didn't like the idea I just didn't know how it was going to respond," he says. "Getting thrown back into full on, high-level game speed, I just had no idea what it was going to be like. I don't know if I had to take days off and stuff like that. But it's responded really well."
Lletget spoke of getting back to a "new normal" during this ongoing recovery.
"I think I have some ways to go to get to my very best, to where I was, but I have to adjust to what I have. I feel like I've improved in some areas, and in some other areas, there's place for improvement. I've just sort of enjoyed every minute that I've been back."
It’s been a season made more intriguing — for the entire league as well as for the Galaxy — by the arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In Zlatan’s debut on March 31, in the "El Trafico" matchup against new cross-town rivals LAFC, he scored two goals in the final two minutes to fully bring them back to a 4-3 win — but it was Lletget who initially sparked the comeback with a 61st-minute goal to get the Galaxy on the board and give them hope. And as it was Ibrahimovic who came on for Lletget, you could say that one finished the job the other started.
"[Ibrahimovic] keeps it interesting on and off the field for sure! He’s funny, he’s a jokester, but he’s got such a mentality. He's a winner in every sense. He does his best to beat you in anything, whether it's telling jokes or training. It gets under my skin, so I want to beat him all the time though. It’s good."
As the 2018 World Cup reaches its close, Lletget is thinking about 2022 even as he’s focused on his health and the Galaxy’s attempted return to the playoffs.
"I'm definitely confident that I’ll be in the mix and have an opportunity to prove myself again. I'm super excited for that. As we all know, four years can go by pretty fast. We've got to get ready as much as possible, and the sooner we get a group moving forward, the better for us."
Lletget’s already cleared an additional hurdle this year — an ankle injury keeping him sidelined for several weeks in June — but is showing the fortitude and resilience that’s made him inspirational as well as integral to what the Galaxy do — and what the USMNT may have yet to do.
Lletget’s return to the field prompted Coach Sigi Schmid to say it was like getting a new player. Lletget, based on his history, is one that you can’t ever count out.