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Lletget is the most interesting man in U.S. soccer

Written by 
Published in Soccer
Thursday, 25 April 2019 14:13

LOS ANGELES -- Five o'clock on the Friday of a holiday weekend is not an ideal time to be driving on the highways of Southern California. But here we are, somewhere between the apartment Sebastian Lletget shares with his girlfriend, pop star Becky G, and Dignity Health Sports Park, home of the LA Galaxy -- who host Real Salt Lake on Sunday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+). The 26-year-old star, a facilitator of his Major League Soccer club's potent attack and arguably the one man in the U.S. men's national team player pool with the ability to press Christian Pulisic for his starting spot (although the ideal lineup probably involves them both), weaves in and out of the early-evening traffic. He has somewhere to be.

In the past, Lletget wouldn't have been the first one to the stadium on game day. He is now, however, hitting the gym to get 100 touches even before heading out to the field to warm up for the Galaxy's matchup with the Houston Dynamo. The new routine is a result of growing older and having a body that's not quite as pliable as it used to be, and also of returning from a foot injury that nearly cost him his career.

In March 2017, he scored his first goal for the U.S., in a key qualifier in front of a home Northern California crowd. Minutes later, an Ever Alvarado tackle ended his night, breaking bones and tearing ligaments, requiring surgery and a long rehab. Two years later, Lletget is only now returning to form.

"The first year post-injury, I basically didn't touch a ball," he tells ESPN FC. "To build off of all that and use last year to gather all my skills back, my sense of the game, and my instinct took longer than I expected. Prior to an injury like that, you feel invincible. When this happens, it kind of breaks you. You don't have that Superman shield that you think you have subconsciously."

The superpower of youth becomes the preparation of a veteran. Lletget drives a Chevy Traverse that's new enough to maintain its dealership shine but dusty enough for a Galaxy staffer to lovingly write "Wash Me" on the driver's side door after he parks it in the bowels of Dignity Health. He jokes with the perpetrator, smiles for a few photos, says goodbye to his parents (who come to town for most of his home games), and walks down a hallway past trophies from previous Galaxy squads, and into the locker room to prepare, alone.

Sebastian Lletget the person is not Sebastian Lletget the social media account. His Instagram, @theylovedaboy, boasts 506,000 followers -- a lot, until you realize that Becky has 17.6 million and counting -- and a remarkable variety of selfies featuring him Blue Steeling it for the camera. He got the idea for the Drake-inspired handle one night in England when he was a teenager who was trying -- and ultimately failing -- to find his way at West Ham. He started the account, then went to sleep.

"I wake up the next morning and I'm getting killed by my teammates," he says. "Just murdered, nonstop. First-team players and coaches are asking what I was thinking."

Some guys would have deleted their foray into social media, or at least changed their handle. Not Lletget. He loved the reaction, the good-natured ribbing. He still does.

"I got so much s--- for my last media post, which is hilarious," he says. "I love going in and everybody cracking jokes at me. It starts that banter in the locker room. It will happen without fail. I have a really good time with it."

He tells this story in a Manhattan Beach coffee shop, sipping a decaf Americano and a bottle of water, wearing a simple white t-shirt and shorts. He could be anyone, just another anonymous, fit, sun-kissed surfer with a megawatt smile and easy charisma. Lletget is quieter, more subtle than Da Boy, although the overlap is obvious. There's an easy through line between the guy sitting in front of me, and the one in a hot tub, teaching Alan Gordon and Dan Gargan how to take a selfie. Lletget understands the balance, the value of showing off his personality.

"I think we're at a point in sports in general of blurring the lines between street scene and fashion," he says. "It's kind of OK to do something away from soccer. I think people enjoy seeing a different side of you."

Of course, he also knows that the off-field fun is only tenable if he's producing on the field.

"Once a coach sees my dedication and my focus in what the common goal is in the locker room, I don't think they care as much," he says. "They know I know that when it's time to work, it's time to work. If you show every day that you're into this, if you don't have that brush-off mentality, I think coaches will be OK with you being you, especially off the field."

Injury aside, Lletget has been good for the Galaxy since joining the team in 2015. He's competitive -- "Not like [Zlatan Ibrahimovic]," he says. "Ibra's intense." -- and wants the ball in a way not a lot of Americans do: gesturing for it demonstratively, emphatically and aggressively. The Galaxy offensive philosophy primarily involves getting the ball within about 40 yards of the opposition net, then looking for Ibrahimovic. (This strategy, it should be said, has been proven to work.) But there are also some intricate exchanges, weaves between Lletget, Jonathan dos Santos and Joe Corona; quick one-twos with Lletget and the big Swede; other variations that demonstrate Lletget's improving understanding of his teammates and the game.

On the American team, he's one of Gregg Berhalter's No. 10s, and he's loving the push the new U.S. boss gives him.

"It's uncomfortable, but he really does make you see the game a little bit differently," Lletget says. "I have certain habits in my position, and they weren't necessarily the best habits. He's trying to take me out of those. I was comfortable, but I could be in a more dangerous area that's more risky. He dragged me out of my comfort zone in the short time we've worked together. When you do things he advises you to do and they work, it's like, 'Oh my god, I'm progressing.'"

He credits Berhalter with helping him improve his awareness, his positioning, and his game, skills that he's brought back to the Galaxy and wants to deploy at the Gold Cup this summer.

It's a contract year for Lletget, and there are thoughts about the future. Europe calls in that way it does, although perhaps not as aggressively as it does for some others. There's a tension between the cliché of athletes wanting to test themselves against the best in the world and the fact that Lletget did that already as a teenager and it went poorly for reasons both his fault and not. Though he thinks he has the skill to play in Europe now, he's cautious.

"Going back to Europe could be in the cards," he says. "It has to be a right situation. You want to go to the right organization. A manager that really wants you there. I think Americans think Europe is the best thing for us, then we get there and immediately regret it."

Plus, he's carved out a damn nice life for himself in LA. He's nearing 100 appearances for a single club, which has been a lifelong goal. This Galaxy team might be the best in years, with a chance to bring home a trophy. His parents are close by. His favorite NBA team, the Golden State Warriors, play at a reasonable time. He and Becky share an apartment in a quiet neighborhood a few minutes from the beach. There's parking and a pool, a place to make a home. She's gone a lot, touring and being a star, but they are figuring it out.

"We don't see each other often. It's almost like a long-distance relationship but we live together," he says. "Once you get the hang of it, it's not that hard. It's finding that partnership."

Last year, he organized a surprise birthday party for her, an event that earned the TMZ treatment, with him being called "her soccer boyfriend, Sebastian Llejay." The pair take the pressure off of their respective careers, Lletget pretending he knows about music to make Becky laugh, Becky kicking the ball around with him. (Lletget's scouting report of her: "a little rat" with "some good control.") I asked him about his skin-care routine because the dude has some nice skin, and he said that Becky always puts stuff on the bed for him. "I don't know if I should take it as an insult, but she always gives me a boatload and tells me I'll thank her when I'm 40," he says, laughing. "She's investing in herself, too. She has to look at me, so I get what she's doing."

Whatever the next move is, the pair will decide it together. For now, however, the future can wait. It wasn't so long ago that his return was a real question mark. Lletget's just happy to be back playing, back taking selfies, back doing what he loves.

"I feel like I'm going to keep playing better," he says. "Maybe I only notice that. But I definitely want it more. I'm grateful for these opportunities. It's just awesome to be part of a special moment in time with the club and with the national team."

Da Boy, man; he's going places.

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