photo by John Dorton/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SARASOTA, Fla. – Sebastian Lletget hasn't had the easiest of times since signing with West Ham United on his 18th birthday, but things are starting to look up for the U.S. Under-23 men's national team midfielder.
After a rough first season in England which was plagued by pesky injuries, Lletget is beginning to find his stride at both the club and international level. The 19-year old has been called into both U.S. U-23 team camps since Caleb Porter was appointed head coach, and Lletget believes he is on the brink of taking the next step in his development by dressing for the Hammers for the first time in his career.
"I've been there a while and things are coming around," said Lletget, who prefers his last name to be pronounced leh-JET. "I just have got to make one last step before I make myself an established professional.
"I believe I'm ready. I've been working really hard these past six months since preseason, and I think I'll get my chance."
A San Francisco native born to Argentine parents, Lletget has recovered from the multiple muscular injuries which hampered his chances of breaking into West Ham's lineup last campaign. Add in the fact the Hammers are now playing in the Championship instead of the Premiership, and Lletget's chances of playing have increased over the past year.
As much as those are reasons as to why Lletget could soon see the field, what if he doesn't? What if he remains a spectator for the club? Would a loan be in the works for Lletget?
"To be honest, I truly believe that it will happen," said Lletget of his chances of breaking into the club's rotation of players. "I'm patient and at the moment my future is at West Ham. That's all I'm concentrated on."
With a clean slate of health, Lletget has been able to train regularly with the club. That has translated over to the international level, where he was a regular part of Thomas Rongen's U.S. U-20 men's national team side earlier this year and where he's fighting for a spot on Porter's Olympic qualifying team.
Lletget describes himself as a technical player who relies on his vision and passing to counteract his lack of pace. He believes he is a good fit in Porter's preferred 4-3-3 formation, which focuses on possession and high-pressure defense.
"I really like it. He has that sort of Dutch, more Spanish sort of mentality and philosophy and it suits midfielders such as me and Jared Jeffrey and (Mikkel) Diskerud," said Lletget. "It suits us a lot because we like to play with the ball on the ground and we like to move it quick. When we don't have it, the most important thing is to pressure and that's exactly what (Porter) wants us to do and he really emphasizes it."
Lletget did well in that system during the U.S. U-23 team's second intra-squad scrimmage this past week, serving as an integral part to the White Team's attack by playing atop the midfield triangle.
Lletget misplaced passes on a few occasions, but overall he was very active in helping his team post a 2-0 victory by serving as a primary link between the defense and the attack.
He even scored a late insurance goal in the match when he realized he had space and hit a well-placed shot from just inside the penalty area past a helpless Zac MacMath.
"He's a sweet player, good feet, very nice player," said Porter. "His touch, it fits the way we play. We need guys in the center of the park that are comfortable on the ball, that want the ball, can spray it around and obviously, we need guys that can finish the play, too, in the final third, score goals, create goals."
Lletget will be hoping to continue to make strides in his games to the point where he makes the U.S. U-23 team that will attempt to qualify for the Olympics in March.
Assuming Lletget stays injury-free and makes it the Olympic qualifying roster for the United States, the playmaker is adamant on helping his team avoid a repeat showing of the U-20 side's performance from this past spring, when it failed to qualify for the U-20 World Cup.
"Obviously we didn't do (well) in Guatemala with the U-20 qualifying for the World Cup, but I recovered from that," said Lletget, who started and went the distance in the decisive 2-1 loss to the tournament hosts in April. "It was a big blow emotionally and I really felt bad because I'm probably not going to see a lot of those teammates that I had, and obviously the coach, Thomas Rongen, he was great but we couldn't do it for him at the end. It was a big blow."
Even with that disappointment, Lletget considers 2011 to be a good year for him and his development. He trained consistently at the club level for the first time in his career, and believes he has learned from even the worst experiences, including the heart-breaking loss to Guatemala.
"I'm glad I have that experience because I know the feeling and I know what I have to do if I get selected when the time comes," said Lletget. "I'll know how to prepare myself mentally. It's very important. It's no joke. It's the Olympics and people's jobs are on the line, but I'm sure we will deliver."