SOCCER AMERICA: Probably no one will remember you scored the first Galaxy goal of El Trafico, or that Ibrahimovic replaced you with the score, 3-2.
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: He was brilliant and deserves the credit and to be honest, has been a great teammate.
SA: The same thing happened in the USA game; after you went off injured, Clint Dempsey marked his own comeback from a heart condition by bagging a hat trick.
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: I have a tendency to start stuff off and let everybody take care of the rest.
SA: So much has happened to the national team since that Honduras game it’s easy to forget how important it was to win following losses to Mexico and Costa Rica in the first two Hexagonal matches.
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: We needed to win that game. There was a lot of pressure. It was Bruce’s first World Cup qualifier after Jurgen leaving. It was a tense time and to get that kind of a blowout was huge for us.
SA: It turned out to be a huge game in your career, both good and bad. Your first USA goal and the most serious injury since you turned pro.
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: It’s basically my hometown. It was a beautiful thing, even after the injury. There were so many people there supporting me. It was a bit of a dark time, bittersweet, but it was nice to have them there.
At first, we all thought it was something not that big and we were all celebrating. Then they took a closer look and it was worse than the worst-case scenario we could have thought. So it was double bad.
I couldn’t walk and it was swollen but I didn’t think it could be that bad. They didn’t really tell me how long it was going to take, but I was told I was out for the season and the season had just started. I kind of knew then, ‘This is not good.’ We put it all behind us and move forward.
SA: The USA has to move forward, too, after missing out on the 2018 World Cup.
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: This stuff happens. There has to be a loser and it was us on that day. Any other day and would be a completely different outcome. It was a perfect storm and I believe we’re going to feel some repercussions in June. We’ll definitely feel the loss but we move forward. That’s all we can do.
SA: Last year was also the worst season in the history of the Galaxy, which has won more MLS Cups (five) than any other team. Ibrahimovic is just one of several major changes implemented by head coach Sigi Schmid. How do you assess the team’s makeover so far?
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: We have so many characters and different sorts of players. Everybody can contribute so it’s tough for Sigi to pick a team of 11 players. With the injuries at the start of the season, it's been hard for everyone to jell. We’re finding our way and it’s such a long season that hopefully you do get that by the end.
The most important time in this league is the end. October, November and December, hopefully, those are the most important months.
SA: And what is your take on the arrival of Ibrahimovic?
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: To be honest, he’s been awesome, man. I can’t say anything bad about him. He has a winning mentality since he came in and it’s been contagious. It’s really rubbed off on us. Our outlook has changed as a group and we all really get along. It’s only been positive.
SA: He’s also the oldest (37) guy on the team, which has to impress players such as yourself who are younger by more than a decade.
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: It shows what you can do when you take care of yourself. Me and him have definitely connected as far as him coming back from an injury and what happened to me. There are a lot of similarities. Even just to go out and train and pass the ball around we have to do so much warming up.
He’s a great professional, man. You can say what he wants but he does all the right things.
SA: So with the example of Ibrahimovic and your own experience with mono and a broken foot, what does that tell you about longevity as a professional athlete?
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: I’m still feeling good, but you can see what it’s going to be like when I’m 35. I think, ‘Oh, man, it’s going to be a rough ride.’
I have to start taking care of everything now, so my 35-year-old self will thank me. With my injury and all the stuff that went with it, I learned a lot about taking care of my body in ways that maybe I wasn’t doing before. It was kind of a valuable lesson going forward to where I am now.
SA: Signing a superstar is always risky and not many personalities come as big as Zlatan. The Galaxy has a history of landing big names: how is this one working out?
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: He’s a jokester but very respectful. I can’t think of one time he’s not really joking to be honest with you. The whole persona is hilarious. I think it’s great. Absolutely a great teammate.
He’s a leader but he doesn’t have to scream at everybody. He’s more by example.
On the sidelines. he’s always giving advice to people and talking and communicating, but not in a manner where he’s looking down on you. It’s everybody at the same table, everybody at the same level.
SA: You wanted to play at a high level at a very young age and give a lot of credit to your parents for letting you take that chance. How did the opportunity come about?
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: When I was about 13 I knew I wanted to make it. I just didn’t know how it was ever going to happen. A scout from West Ham [Mike Lee] came to do a coaching clinic and he used our team [Sporting Santa Clara] to show the coaches formations, tactics, and positioning. During a couple of weeks, he was able to see me play and little by little he took an interest in me.
He told me he’d been talking to people at West Ham and there were some opportunities and we can really make this happen if I was up for it. The rest is history.
If they had been half-interested. we might have had second thoughts, but they were very willing to make it as comfortable a transition as possible. That helps out any parent when you know your kid’s going to be safe and is going to be well taken care of. I wasn’t going across the world to be on my own. That played a big part.
I had the best examples to learn from, just being in that environment. The training environment is a little hostile, you know, but when you get used to it, it really teaches you a lot. When I came back to MLS, I used all that I learned over there and it paid off.
SA: You were in a great spot until you contracted mononucleosis. It didn’t turn out well for you or Zola.
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: It was a shame. Everybody loved the guy and he was such a good person and coach. Personally, we did have a good relationship. It was tough to see him go. The following coaches [Arvam Grant, Sam Allardyce] obviously didn’t have me in the plans. It was a weird time, a hard time, but I learned some valuable lessons.
I wouldn’t want to say anything bad about the other coaches. It is what it is. It’s a business, an industry. Some guys love you and some guys don’t. They all have their reasons.
I missed four or five months and by the time I got back, Zola was kind of on the fringe of leaving and he was never going to play a youngster, and I knew that. So I understood it. There’s nothing I could look back on that I would do differently.
That was another crazy ride. I was on the fringe of the first team and I hit one of these weird, bizarre phases in my career. I’ve had to fight through many of them and fortunately I’ve always come out on the other side. I intend to do the same with this one. And I think I have. It’s been good so far.
SA: How severe a problem is it in the Premier League for young players to get time on the field, even at a club with a great history of producing talent? There’s so much money available most teams buy up as much experience as possible.
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: I would consider our class one of the top ones at the club. We had a really good team and still under those coaches we couldn’t break through. Maybe some will argue it was our ability but I think most will say it’s because we didn’t get an opportunity. That’s just the reality of it.
George Moncur -- son of John Moncur, one of the club’s all-time legends – was a fantastic midfielder. We had Elliott Lee whose dad [Robert Lee] was a huge player for Newcastle. There are a handful more. I’ve seen much less talented players, or whatever you want to call it, break through to the first team. If someone is believing in you that’s literally the difference.
They have a great catalog of players and when most of those players were coming through it was a different time, a completely different era. When I was there. I would ask them a lot about coming up as a 17-year-old at that time, guys like Joe Cole and Michael Carrick, and they would all tell you how different it was.
It’s more crazy now, tougher to get by as a youngster breaking into the first team. You can be a standout talent but the manager can’t take that risk. The money can get you a well-established player with 300 games under his belt as opposed to this great young kid who has none or has been on loan a couple of times. It’s a risk that managers don’t always want to take.
SA: You had to take something of a risk to leave England for MLS. Did the fact the Galaxy paid the Revs $50,000 for your league rights affect your decision?
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: Of course, it did make a difference because I was at a club that did things right and was well-organized. The Galaxy has a reputation for trying to do things right across the board. So counting all that it made sense.
I didn’t really know what I was walking into. I didn’t know what to expect, good or bad, but they were the best choice at the time. Thankfully, all I needed was the opportunity and the club gave it to me and it worked out.
SA: You did well in MLS right from the start but didn’t get a national team callup until Arena left the Galaxy to coach the USA.
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: I was hoping for it to happen earlier. It didn’t seem to matter what I did, Jurgen Klinsmann didn’t see it, and that’s totally fine. Some would argue I could have been called in earlier but everything happens for a reason.
SA: In reviewing the Hexagonal, interim head coach Dave Sarachan cited your absence as a key factor. He decided not to call you in for the January camp because of your recovery schedule.
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: I have a good relationship with Dave and he spoke to me. If I was further along, it would have made sense to come in and be with the group. That meant a lot to me for him to communicate with me, so it made sense to get back on the field with the Galaxy and eventually get back to the national team. I’m confident it will happen soon and I can’t wait.
SA: Players coming back from their first serious injury often need time to accept the fact the injured part of their body doesn’t feel right even though it is healthy. Has that been your experience?
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: I would agree that it feels a little different but I think I’m getting there. I’m feeling pretty good and the team is looking pretty good. I’m just trying to enjoy the game again. It’s so early now, I’ve just got to get all my bearings together and keep doing what I’m doing.
SA: Like scoring important goals for club and country. Take us through the goal you scored against Honduras on the rebound of a shot by Christian Pulisic.
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: I’m a player that follows the play and tries to read the game, and it was sort of one of those plays. I knew Christian was playing really well and creating a lot of stuff for us. He got a one-on-one with the keeper and I kind of followed up. He did most of the work and he put a shot in, and I knew if the keeper gets a touch it’s coming right to me.
It was all about my positioning and my follow-up and I had to tuck it away. It was such a sense of relief. It was incredible. All the hard work. I just wish it would have lasted longer.
SA: You got to enjoy it for about 10 minutes and have been waiting for more than a year for another chance.
SEBASTIAN LLETGET: That’s the way it goes. That’s the tough part to success but you just keep doing what you’re doing and don’t let the other stuff distract you.
I can’t wait to play for the national team again. I can’t wait to have another memory of wearing that shirt. It would be extra special for me to put that shirt back on, knowing what happened and how it all came down, and what’s going to happen with the team itself and the federation. I’ve been through a lot and I’d kind of like to wipe all that out and start fresh.
I’m over it. But I intend on scoring many more.