Tomas Romero's ascent at Los Angeles FC, where he's been most impressive since stepping into the nets a month ago, wouldn't be happening if he'd not made a decision that's been somewhat mischaracterized.
The 20-year-old phenom from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, has put together six strong performances as LAFC has gone on its best run of the 2021 campaign, but the opportunity would not have arrived had he not told El Salvador, “No, thanks,” when a Concacaf Gold Cup invitation was extended.
Instead of battling Alianza's Mario Gonzalez for the surprising Cuzcatlecos' starting goalkeeping job this summer, he's concentrated on showing Bob Bradley and the LAFC staff his skills and dedication, turned in some fine work for the club's USL Championship affiliate, and stepped into No. 1 role with the first team with great aplomb.
Romero has conceded just five goals in six games -- all of them exemplary finishes in situations that provided him little leeway -- made a raft of big stops, and played a significant role in LAFC's gathering of 12 of its 21 points this season, winning applause from all corners.
Nothing new for the Philadelphia Union academy product. He made his first game-day roster with Union affiliate Bethlehem Steel at 15 and his first start -- as the youngest goalkeeper to make a USL top-tier lineup -- at 16, then played hero at 18 as Georgetown captured its first NCAA men's soccer championship 19 months ago.
Youngsters doing big things is hardly novel in soccer, of course. Teens star in top divisions all over the world, including MLS, but not as goalkeepers, a position in which players typically hit their peak in their late 20s and can enjoy careers into their 40s. But Romero arrives well-equipped, as a strong technical keeper with a veteran's approach to the job.
Bradley praises Romero's positioning, that he is “very calm” and “sees things,” how he sets his feet to be in “good position to make saves,” and his ability to play with the ball at his feet. It's all product of his work ethic.
“He's just shown a good, steady way of working every day, working closely with [goalkeeper coach] Zak Abdel,” LAFC's storied head coach said. “Has a good presence, just a good mentality in terms of how he goes about things everyday. So he's a mature goalkeeper, even though he's young. And I think he's earned everybody's respect, with just the way he goes about things everyday.”
Romero's quick, and that's fueled some exceptional performances. He surrendered just three goals in his first five games -- two in a 2-1 loss at Sporting Kansas City on unstoppable shots following LAFC turnovers from inside its box and another in last weekend's 2-1 win over visiting Real Salt Lake on a one-on-one situation from a quick counterattack -- as LAFC went on a 4-1-0 tear after a 2-3-3 start to the season with Pablo Sisniega between the pipes.
He surrendered two more in Wednesday night's loss at Portland -- a one-v-one finish by Diego Valeri at the start and Felipe Mora's glorious header inside the left post at the death, both assisted by poor defending -- but it's what he has stopped that speaks more to what Romero has meant for LAFC.
He's made 11 saves and deflected another shot that was then cleared off the line, and eight of those are or border on highlight-reel material. Has he claimed the No. 1 spot?
“Time will tell,” Bradley said. “But certainly he seemed ready for the opportunity, and he's not fazed by anything. From the moment that he arrived, he conducts himself in a really good way. He's mature. He's got a really good approach. You know, his mentality about preparing himself for training everyday and then with the different games he's played, I think it speaks to the experience that he had before he came to L.A.”
Romero, whom LAFC signed in February after sending $50,000 in general allocation money to Philadelphia for his homegrown rights, has been building his résumé since first stepping in as goalkeeper -- the position his father (and youth coach), Edinilson, played in his native El Salvador and then in New Jersey after fleeing his country's 1979-92 civil war while in his teens -- and then focusing on it when he discovered in a tryout with a bigger club that he wasn't to the level of the other field players.
He joined the Union's YSC residency in eighth grade and quickly rose within the academy, leading to the opportunities with Bethlehem Steel. LAFC assistant coach Mike Sorber knew Romero from his tenure on Jim Curtin's staff, leading to LAFC's interest.
Romero's performance in five games with the USL's Las Vegas Lights, who train in Los Angeles and travel to Las Vegas for home games, boosted his profile, as did his work in first-team training.
“You could tell he was making progress,” Bradley said. “And it's a good competition between [Sisniega and Romero]. They push each other. And we thought it was time to give Tomas a run of games.”
Bradley put him in the lineup June 23 against FC Dallas at Banc of California Stadium, and Romero -- who posted a 1-0 shutout -- needed just a few moments to get his MLS bearings.
“I think the first two minutes somebody hit a ball straight up in the air into the box, and for a goalie that's kind of a hard ball, because you're looking up right into the lights and, like, if you drop this, you're way out of the goal,” Romero said. “I'm a pretty confident player, so I was just like, 'OK, I need to go for this one.' I jumped up and I just grabbed it. And that was like enough for me to lock in.
“I knew after that I'd be fine, because it's kind of a nervous situation for a goalie, and I kind of handled it well. And Zak after the game, he said the same thing to me: 'Yeah, I saw you do that and knew you'd be fine.' ”
Romero has looked good since, posting successive shutouts in wins at Real Salt Lake and Austin FC the first week of July and making a series of vital stops, some of them in the 2-1 losses June 26 at Sporting Kansas City and on Wednesday in Portland.
He parried a point-blank, one-bounce Felipe Hernandez header over his crossbar when the game with K.C. was still 1-1, made four big saves in the 1-0 triumph at Salt Lake a week later -- reaching back to parry a Pablo Ruiz knuckler, diving to deny Albert Rusnak at the right post, knocking aside a first-time Maikel Chang blast from near the penalty spot, and getting a piece of Rubio Rubin's chip off a counter that Eddie Segura cleared -- then turned aside Kekuta Manneh's 12-yard open shot off a break and Cecilio Dominguez's deflected free kick in the 2-0 win at Austin four days after that. He made a diving stop on a Diego Valeri blast through traffic in the loss to Portland.
Bradley liked the save on Manneh, “where he cut into the box and it was hard to know where he was going to shoot. And when he shot at the near post, [Romero] just did a good job of having his feet [set] and getting his right hand down to make that save. For me, that was the one that that really just showed his presence, his confidence and his ability to make an important save.”
Romero is happy with what he's done, chagrined at the goals he's conceded, and fiercely critical of his play. He calls himself “a perfectionist in a lot of ways” and says he does “a lot of things bad.”
“I feel like I can offer so much more for the team playing out of back, and I feel I can do a lot better,” he said. “I haven't really done bad, I haven't really made a lot of mistakes with my feet. I just feel I could do so much better. And crosses as well. There's so many crosses. If you look at the videos, ah, maybe I should have gone, maybe I shouldn't've. But I always feel that I can.
“And even the goals, a lot of them I feel like I could have saved them. Maybe I'm not supposed to save them, but ... I guess I'm just super hard on myself with that. But I think that's an important quality, because I know eventually there will be a goal I can't do anything about. But I feel like there's always something to do. And there always something if you look back at the game, you could do better, even if it's telling your defense something different to prevent something like that.”
He's got a firm understanding of what makes a good goalkeeper and strains to reach such heights.
“One of the pieces of advice I [was given] in my youth career was that the best goalies, they're the ones that don't provoke goals vs. having to save them, and whether that's through communication or not making mistakes or keeping your team up and everything. And as the level gets higher, that's more relevant, because you have to find ways prevent things from happening, prevent chances from other teams, whether that's reading the ball or anticipating crosses and stuff like that. And I feel like that is something that I've kind of lacked throughout my youth career, and then I guess now I've just put more emphasis on it, and it's just going good for me now.”
LAFC first expressed interest in Romero after his performance at the 2019 NCAA College Cup, where he gave the Hoyas the trophy by saving Axel Gunnarsson's attempt on the seventh round of penalties after a 3-3 draw with Virginia in the final. The COVID-19 outbreak delayed any such move, and he didn't get in a full 90 anywhere last year, spending most of the epidemic working on strength and conditioning, and “training in my best friend's backyard, working on my feet, stuff like that for almost like six months.”
He was ecstatic when the deal came down. First-team goalkeeping opportunities in Philadelphia seemed out of reach, mostly because of Andre Blake's presence.
“He's a great mentor and everything, but he's top two, three goalkeepers in the league,” Romero said. “For me, he's No. 1, and when you're training as a young guy and you see him, you're like, 'Oh my gosh, how am I supposed to compete with that,' you know? ... But now that I've come to L.A., now that I'm doing it, it seems a lot ... I don't want to say easier, because it's not easy at all, but I guess it's easier than I expected, just because I prepared so well. I feel that I'm at this level.”
The opportunity would likely not have arrived so soon had he not told El Salvador no. Romero, who had debuted with its U-17 team when he was 15, played in the 2017 Concacaf U-17 Championship the following year, and was in camp with the U-23 team in February, says he wanted to establish himself as a pro before playing internationally, the natural course of things.
By sticking around, he made three appearances with Las Vegas in June, “and then I was given the chance to play against Dallas,” he said. “Obviously, in hindsight, it's a great decision.”
He'd have been cap-tied had he accepted the Gold Cup invitation and seen action, and El Salvador's press release announcing he'd declined mentioned the desire to keep his options open in case U.S. Soccer came knocking.
Well, yes and no.
“I talked with [former El Salvador-born U.S. star] Hugo Perez, the coach, and he knows that I'm a dual citizen,” Romero said. “But the main emphasis for me was that I couldn't leave because there's only two goalies [on the LAFC roster], and my thought process was if I leave, they're going to have to probably sign another goalie, and then I'll have to deal with [more competition in the hierarchy]. And so I decided to stay.”
He's never talked with anyone at U.S. Soccer but recognizes that “if I do play the rest of the season or keep playing well, that maybe the U.S. will look at me. But I'm not really thinking about that.” He would love to be “in a position to make a decision,” because that would mean he continues to do well.
“That's more what I'm focused on, just playing well and winning with the team and continuing to play.”
He knows his strengths -- “I don't panic when I'm under pressure” and “I don't really dwell on mistakes as much as maybe other people do” among them -- and says he's not looking to be spectacular. Just solid.
“I don't really give up anything easy. I think that is important, not getting scored on goals you should save,” he said. “I spend a lot of time on that. ... Yeah, there's pressure and stuff like that. I get nervous before games. I think that's natural. ...
“I think I put myself in good positions, and the pressure I feel is good pressure, because, realistically, I'm not expected to be anything amazing right now. I'm young and I know that and I just want to focus on doing the right things, and good things will come. If you play like you have to do the amazing, then you're going to make mistakes. I just take it play by play and don't really think about things like that.”