BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, November 24, 2010
As the US U-20s continues their camp this week for the upcoming Torneo de las Americas, a huge boost for the squad has come in the form of West Ham United's attacking midfielder Sebastian Lletget.
Lletget, 18, was last with the U-20 national team in December for the first camp of the 2011 cycle. Since then, however, he has had a very difficult year after battling a severe case of mononucleosis that has kept him out of action for a long period of time.
Lletget's arrival in Atlanta is coming on the heels of his return to action with West Ham's reserve team and U-19 teams where he finally has returned to full strength.
"I had mono for a while but I've recovered really well," Lletget told YA in Atlanta. "West Ham United really helped me. I'm thankful for Thomas Rongen for calling me back and being patient with my illness. I've had my first 90 minutes recently against Arsenal reserves and we ended up winning. It's going well but it's really taken awhile to get back to 100 percent."
Lletget left for West Ham two years ago when he was just 16 and his initial time at the club was met with great reception within the club as he began to train with the club's first team despite his very young age.
"My first year when I was 16 and turning 17, last season, I think everything went really well when Gianfranco Zola was the first team coach," Lletget recalled. "I think I really caught his eye. I was there and I was training with the first team. I was the big surprise at the club at that time because who would have thought an American at the club would blossom like that."
When Lletget returned from his illness, however, he found himself in a far different situation than the one where he initially flourished. After spending his time developing under Zola, the Italian boss was fired after the first team struggled and he was replaced by Avram Grant.
"But then [Zola was fired] and everything really changed," Lletget described. "But it's been a weird time but in soccer, everything changed really quickly – coaches come and go. Everything is great now but it's a different [situation] and I am just trying to adjust. It's very different. [Grant] is probably the opposite of what Zola was. He's done great things but obviously the team isn't doing very well at the moment. Hopefully we avoid relegation. "
The coaching change at West Ham has not changed Lletget's ambitious goal this year of making a first team appearance in the English Premier League. It is a goal that he thinks will be a difficult challenge but one that is attainable.
"I definitely have a goal," the San Francisco teen said emphatically. "Depending on what happens with the new coach at West Ham. I am almost there. I train with them all the time but the breaking into [the squad] is the hardest part. You just have to keep waiting for that moment to break through."
Lletget is now in Atlanta for his first competition with a US national team since his time with U-17 program. His time under U-17 head coach Wilmer Cabrera drew a lot of attention because Lletget did not make the World Cup team after arguably being the team's best player in qualifying.
Lletget's omission from the roster was one of the more surprising events at the time in US youth national team soccer and rumors began to circulate regarding Lletget's loyalty to the US program since he was an elite prospect that also had Argentine and Italian passports.
He recalls that there was a difficult choice at the time that he had to make between the US U-17 team and West Ham, however he adds that the U-20 age level is the real priority for him and that he is committed and dedicated to the US program.
"It was a complicated time and there are a lot of rumors," Lletget recalled of the end of time with the US U-17's. "There was just an ultimatum between me and Wilmer. He [asked] if you wanted to stick to residency or go to West Ham. Obviously I think that for my future West Ham was it. There were a lot of complications but I think I made the right decision and I don't regret anything. The Under-20s is the one I am looking forward to."
"At the time, a lot of people were confused about what my interests were," he stressed. "But I really want to let people know that the US is where I want to be."
In addition to the desire to represent the US internationally, a big part of the reason why Lletget is happy to be back with the US program is the fact that he enjoys playing for head coach Thomas Rongen.
"I think the coaching staff is really good," Lletget said of Rongen and his staff. "They are really qualified with a lot of experience. So far they have treated me really well. I think it's a great setup. I want to now come to as many camps as I can."
"As long as they keep inviting me, it's a long-term relationship," he went on to add with a smile.
More specifically for Lletget, it's Rongen's Dutch style of coaching that fits his game very well and he feels strongly that it will allow him to shine as the cycle moves forward to next year's World Cup. As a central attacking midfielder, Rongen encourages creativity and Lletget feels that the freedom Rongen gives him will be a major positive.
"It fits my style because he lets you play with a lot of freedom," Lletget said of Rongen's style. "That's a big reason why I really like him as a coach because you can show what you can do and you know he's not going to be on your back."
"Obviously a coach needs to correct errors and little things," he continued. "But he really lets all the players do what they feel like doing. In my case, it's attacking soccer. It's how the Dutch are and who doesn't want to be like the Dutch?"
Even though Lletget has been with the US-20's only a short amount of time this cycle, he is very close to many of the players on this team and he likes what he has seen. He is confident that the team can make a strong push next year in Colombia in Atlanta.
"I think we can get far," Lletget said of the team's potential. "Just like the senior team shows, you never know what can happen. Even if you don't have the best players, you can still win games if you stick together. But the players we have are qualified. We're no different than Spain or Argentina or whoever you want to compare us to. We're ready."
One of the more intriguing factors behind the team's talent this cycle has been the introduction of players with experience in the game that stems from personal backgrounds from countries in South America and Europe.
From Adrian Ruelas and Moises Orozco who have backgrounds in Mexico, to Juan Agudelo and Alex Molano with Colombian backgrounds, and to Alexander Zahavi who played for Portugal, Lletget is confident that it is this diversity which has become a major strength not just for the team, but to the entire sport in the US.
"I actually like that there is a lot of diversity on this team," Lletget said confidently. "I like that because it brings different styles to our [team's] game. I think it brings a lot of creativity and that's what Thomas wants. It's already become a revolution to US soccer."
Also part of this ongoing revolution in American soccer has been an improved coaching at the youth level in the US. Lletget grew up with the Santa Clara Sporting and developed there before he left for England at age 16.
Now that he looks back on the coaching that younger players are now receiving stateside at younger ages, he is optimistic for the future.
"I think there is a huge difference between a coach catching a kid at 16 than catching a kid at 10,11, or 12," Lletget pointed out. "All these kids, you have to get them at the right time because that's where they're like sponges and absorb everything. That's one of the biggest areas where we struggle in America. But it's changing. It just keeps getting better."
For now, however, Lletget is just focused on the U-20 national team and building chemistry within the core group of the team's players.
He is also excited about the possibility of representing the US on another level. Last week he watched Agudelo score for the senior national team in his first appearance at just 17 years old. Joining his friend at that level is something that is now on his mind.
"Juan is a very close friend of mine but I am close to everyone," Lletget said of the New York Red Bull. "I just couldn't believe it but I am so happy for him."
"It's definitely on my mind," Lletget admitted about his own chances with the senior team in the near future. "I think it's achievable. It's more achievable than before. I am very glad that they are giving young players a chance."
Lletget and the US-U20 national team will take on Colombia in Atlanta this Friday in their first game of the Torneo de las Americas followed by a game against rival Mexico on Sunday.