Monday, March 8, 2010
Lletget rapidly progressing at West Ham
By Justin Rodriguez
Special to ESPN.com
Sebastian Lletget figured the scout was at camp to run the team through some drills.
And this wasn't any scout. This was Mike Leigh of famed West Ham United. As it turns out, Leigh hadn't traveled to Santa Clara Sporting to run a few one-on-one drills and tell the charges some stories about the English Premier League.
The Hammers sent Leigh all the way to northern California in June 2006 to check out Lletget -- 13 at the time -- after hearing about him from Santa Clara Sporting coach Carlos Brasil.
"I was in shock when [Leigh] came up to me and started talking to me about Sebastian," says Lletget's father, Francisco. "I used to be a player, but I didn't have Sebastian's skills. To be honest, to hear that, this was a like dream come true."
Or, at the very least, the beginning of an American soccer dream. Fast-forward almost four years later and Sebastian Lletget is now an attacking midfielder for West Ham's U-18 team. He routinely works out with the reserve and full teams at Upton Park.
"I'm giving myself a chance to be with the full team by the end of this year," says Lletget, who turned 18 in September. "I want to play for the first team and I think I can do it. The way I'm playing, I can see it, and that would be really big for me. That's the way I feel."
And as for Lletget thinking he can play for West Ham's full team this season?
"I made this statement to his father last year: If he keeps going like he is, he could play for the full team in a year," says Leigh. "The first thing you notice about Sebastian is that he just has such great ball control. He's a great passer and he's always one play ahead of the game. I think the only thing he needs to do now is shoot more, which he's working on."
Adds Leigh: "I think if an opportunity arises, I think [Lletget] could make a start this year. If not, definitely next year. [West Ham manager] Giancarlo Zola likes him."
According to Leigh, West Ham super scout Jimmy Hampson once told him that Lletget is the best 14-year-old to ever play for the famed club. Keep in mind, West Ham has developed, among others, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole.
As long as Lletget's game keeps developing, he's likely to make the grade for West Ham. He received his European Union passport -- his grandfather is from Italy -- last spring. Leigh adds that Lletget earned his work permit in December.
Lletget's run to EPL glory began when he just a young boy. His father brought him to Brisbane Park in south San Francisco with a soccer ball as soon as he could walk.
Francisco instilled a passion for the game in Sebastian.
Back in June 2006, when the younger Lletget learned that Leigh's eyes were fixated on him, he lit up a U-14 tournament in Sacramento, with the scout on the sideline; Lletget recalls scoring at least 10 goals in six games.
By July 2006, Lletget was at West Ham on a two-week trial. Only 13, Lletget was assigned to the club's U-18s, because the Hammers didn't have any younger squads. Even if it was just training, Lletget remembers the experience well.
Here he was, an American kid, unknown at this big-time academy across the pond. Lletget gathered the ball on the run for the first time at the 18. He beat a defender and then the keeper far post.
"Within 10 minutes of seeing [Lletget], Tony Carr [West Ham's director of youth development] said that the kid is special," Leigh says. "He thought Sebastian was fantastic; he just blew Tony away."
After lighting up Upton Park in the summer of '06, Lletget made return trips to train with West Ham during breaks with the U.S. U-17 residency team. Lletget left the U-17 program in May 2009 when he signed a two-year youth academy contract with The Hammers.
"I love being here; I love taking my game to the next level," says Lletget, being mentored by West Ham's American defender Jonathan Spector, who often takes the up-and-comer to dinner. "I'm tested every day, especially because I'm American. At first, the coaches wouldn't even shake my hand; they just had to see me play. I just had to earn everyone's respect."
|Sebastian Lletget has made rapid progress in West Ham's academy system.|
Justin Rodriguez covers soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at email@example.com.