CARSON, Calif. — The LA Galaxy's midfield is getting back to normal — with the returns of Jonathan Dos Santos and Uriel Antuna from Mexico's Concacaf Gold Cup triumph and Sebastian Lletget expected to return to training next week following a pelvic injury.
But coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto is finding it increasingly more difficult to leave teen phenom Efrain Alvarez off the field.
The 17-year-old attacking midfielder enjoyed a fruitful first MLS start in the 2-0 Fourth of July home victory over Toronto FC, winning high praise after setting up Zlatan Ibrahimovic's first goal and almost assisting another.
“Every time he was on the field, he led to something,” Schelotto said following the Galaxy's training session Wednesday at Dignity Health Sports Park. “He's more professional, [has had] good experience, and I think he's better now than six months ago. Much better.
“For that, I am thinking about he is starting next game [at home Friday against California Clasico rival San Jose Earthquakes]. He looks like a professional. He looks like [he's] ready.”
Alvarez, who signed a Homegrown contract last year, but played solely for the USL-based reserve team, has made seven MLS appearances, none more than 45 minutes before he went the distance last week. He played the full 90 in both U.S. Open Cup matches, scoring twice in the fourth-round win over amateurs Orange County FC.
After the Toronto win, Schelotto said Alvarez, who turned 17 last month, started because of the absence of so many midfielders. In addition to those mentioned above, they missed an ailing Romain Alessandrini, who could return in a couple of months, and Chris Pontius, who has been slowed by a hamstring injury.
But Alvarez has earned more time.
“Every time he play[s], I feel like he needs to play more,” Schelotto said. “Even last game he play[ed] 90 minutes, because he's very important on the team. He [set up] a goal, he wants the ball, don't care if he lose [the ball], he try again. So it is like a professional.”
Ibrahimovic says Alvarez is the best talent in Major League Soccer and welcomes the idea of keeping the youngster on the field.
“You have players that play football and you have players that think football,” said the Swede, who headed home Alvarez's cross to provide a 75th-minute lead over Toronto. “He’s a player that thinks football, and they're better players, because the guys that play football, they are trained to play football. The guys that think football, they are made to play football. That's a big difference.”
Ibrahimovic said the first time he saw Alvarez on the field, during training last year, he “didn't say nothing to him. I just said, 'You need to lose five kilos before you come back.' And he came back losing that, and he was a totally different player.”
He praised Alvarez for wanting to “take the initiative or take action,” said the Mexico U-17 national-teamer “dominates in the trainings” and “just needs to get game time, because that is what he is missing now.”
“He's by far the biggest talent from everybody [in MLS],” Ibrahimovic said. “Because he thinks football. He has that football in him, and it's natural. It didn't come by him training or something. [Anyone can] have the training, the physical [work] and all those things that you put together [to become a better player], but you cannot have that football in you. He has it.
“He goes on the field, and you see when he plays, he's all natural: the way he thinks, the way he moves the ball, the way he touches the ball. By far the best player in MLS. He just needs his game time, and he will show it also.”
He said playing with Alvarez was “easy.”
“Everything is natural,” he said. “You make the movements, and everything goes natural — it's like a domino effect. The ball comes when it's supposed to come. The timing, it comes in the right moments. It's just the chemistry [involved], it's natural. And with other, different players, it takes time, and you have to move different, you have to think different, take a different approach.
“It's easier with a [thinking player like Alvarez]. But you don't have many of them, so while we have them, we should use them and enjoy them.”