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Former West Ham prospect Sebastian Lletget finally thriving at LA Galaxy

All Sebastian Lletget needed was a little faith.

Not so much from himself, mind you. You don't go from the parks of Brisbane, Calif., to Premier League side West Ham United without a hefty dose of self-confidence. And the fact that Lletget chose the Instagram handle TheyLoveDaBoy further shows that believing in himself was never the issue.

But success in soccer isn't just about faith in yourself. Managers need to be convinced as well. They are the gatekeepers, the arbiter of who plays and who doesn't. Without a manager's confidence, a player is destined to toil in the shadows.

Suffice it to say, Lletget has the confidence and trust of his manager for perhaps the first time in his professional career. LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena signed the 23-year old in May, and if there was an award for Most Impactful Midseason Signing, Lletget just might walk away with the trophy. The midfielder has dazzled with his technical ability, both with his passing and off the dribble. He has also shown a nose for goal, tallying seven times to go with his two assists.

Arena is renowned for his ability to find complementary players, but even he is reluctant to take too much credit for what has transpired.

"In building a team, it takes a good organization, good coaching, and very good luck," he said as he sat in the lobby of the team's hotel prior to its match against San Jose. "Maybe this is an example of very good luck. Sebastian has played very well. By no one's stretch of the imagination did we suspect that this is what we would get out of him."

As Lletget leans against a table in the bowels of the StubHub Center, there is an easygoing air about him. This might be what success does to player. But Lletget also speaks about a sense of relief, a feeling that with the Galaxy, he's landed in the ideal spot, and he's well aware of the role that Arena has played in galvanizing his career.

"It's amazing when a manager shows some belief, what it can do to a player, just to show that confidence," he said. "I have to do my part and get them to trust me. The first couple of weeks, you have to just do everything right, the basics right, everything as far as set pieces, everything you need to do on paper has to be textbook. That's where [the manager] can say, 'OK, I can see him doing everything I want him to do.' Then me going forward, I have to express myself. That's when everything else just happens."

That hasn't always been the case. Granted, growing up in Northern California, there were plenty of people who believed in Lletget, starting with his father, Francisco. Sebastian is youngest of four children, but the only boy, and his father -- a native of Mar Del Plata, Argentina, and a devout River Plate fan -- wasted little time in immersing his son in the game.

"At two years old, Sebastian started kicking the ball," Francisco said via telephone. "I would hold it, and he would kick it with both feet. I told my wife, 'Something good is going to happen in the future.'"

Later, Francisco would work constantly with his son, refining the technical aspects of his game. Parents of other children would often ask Francisco if Sebastian could go to the movies or hang out by the pool. The answer was no, there was training to be done.

"I remember at 10:30 at night one time, it was raining, and we were still in the park," recalled Francisco. "My wife was like, 'He's going to get sick.' I said, 'Don't worry about it. He's going to come out good.' He was like 10 years old. I was pushing him a lot, but it's because he has that talent, and that talent you have to develop."

Sebastian admits that he rebelled at times against his father's obsession, but there was a shared love of the game, and sees now how much Francisco's influence helped him.

"My dad is a fanatic like I've never seen," said Sebastian. "I've never met anyone who feels even close to how he feels about this sport. It's been really contagious from a young age. I know a lot of people have that person where they couldn't have done it without them. My dad is that person. Maybe at times [my mother tried to slow him down], but nobody could stop him. He was pretty committed. It was awesome."

Sebastian soon developed a reputation in the Bay Area, playing on a variety of teams before landing with Santa Clara Sporting as a 13-year-old, where his vision and prowess on the ball drew rave reviews.

"Sebastian was always two steps ahead of everything, which for that age was just incredible," said Carlos Brasil, who coached Lletget at the time. "His final pass was really good. I remember thinking, 'If this kid doesn't make it, then our country just sucks about playing soccer.'"

By then, Lletget was already on the radar of foreign clubs, but a scout from West Ham was first to pounce. Lletget tried out for the club at age 13 and was supposed to stay for two weeks. His first day there, he scrimmaged with club's U-18 team, and played so well that the club decided to sign him on the spot.

Lletget couldn't join the club full time until he obtained a European passport, but he ultimately received Italian citizenship, and three years later, he headed over to London.

It was at this point that Lletget became U.S. soccer's version of Tantalus, the figure from Greek mythology who, as punishment for angering the gods, was forced to stand eternally in a lake, wracked with hunger and thirst, with food and water perpetually just beyond his reach.

In Lletget's case, he needed team minutes for sustenance, but they remained elusive. He made just one first-team appearance in six years, in an FA Cup match against Nottingham Forest.

"I always felt that it was just an arm's length away," said Lletget. "It was always there, but for some reason, there was always something that was holding me back, just a break, an opportunity, a breakthrough, something. I couldn't put my finger on it."

The fact that Lletget was never able to nail down one position and call it his own was certainly a factor. In some respects, he's a classic tweener. He's not the bulldog type to play holding midfield, and questions about his pace made it difficult to determine what attacking position to put him in.

There was some managerial upheaval as well. Gianfranco Zola was the West Ham manager when Lletget arrived, and he immediately had Lletget train with the first team. But a bout of mononucleosis blunted the player's progress, and soon after that, Zola was fired and replaced by Avram Grant.

"Grant, he was a mess. It's the truth," said Lletget. "It was just unorganized. As far as preparation, he wasn't the best. When he was there, he pushed me off to the side."

Next was Sam Allardyce, a manager whose approach leans heavily towards the practical. "What Allardyce does, he's very good at, but he just didn't have me in his plans, it's as simple as that," said Lletget. "I have nothing bad to say about him. It was just one of those things."

The strangest aspect of Lletget's time with West Ham is that he routinely drew praise from assistant and reserve team coaches. Terry Westley currently serves as the club's academy director, and he coached Lletget with the team's U-21 side.

He remains a big fan of Lletget, and said the player was "an absolute pleasure" to coach. As the team prepared for the 2014-15 season, Westley was so impressed with Lletget's play that he approached Allardyce and asked him why he was with the U-21s and not the first team.

"The fear was Lletget couldn't sustain [a high level] over a longer period, and that was why he was with the U-21 development group and not the first-team group," said Westley by telephone. "In possession of the ball, and being creative, he was undeniably a talent. Without the ball, he wasn't tactically where he needed to be, he had more to learn tactically when he didn't have the ball."

It got to the point where West Ham couldn't even send Lletget out on loan, despite repeated attempts.

"No one would ever say, 'Here, sign with us,'" said Lletget. "As time goes by, you get older, and people go, 'Why isn't anyone taking him on loan?' Then they don't trust it because they don't want to be the first. It doesn't matter what the player does."

Perversely, Westley is of the belief that Lletget's skills worked against him, and on a team like West Ham that flirted with relegation, there was no room for a player like Lletget.

He said, "In England -- and I think it's a fault -- do you want that flair player, that risky player, that maverick? I used to say to him, 'You're a bit of a maverick.' Our managers, if you get six bad results in England, you'll probably lose your job.

"Are they willing to take a risk on someone like that or not? And clearly the decision was [that] they weren't, in England."

And so Lletget became what all players dread: a player who never plays, who never gets seen. Sometimes, an American player can use the youth national teams to break out of that rut, but Lletget couldn't find respite there either. The 2011 U-20 team failed to qualify for the World Cup. A concussion saw him dropped from the U-23 team that ultimately failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.

At the start of this year, a glimmer of hope finally emerged. Spanish second division side Alcorcon took Lletget on trial, and a loan looked possible. But then the Galaxy came calling. Lletget had actually been recruited by L.A. assistant Kenny Arena when the latter was an assistant at UCLA.

"I still have his handwritten letter," Lletget said.

A preseason stint when the Galaxy trained in Ireland was enough to convince Arena to bring Lletget on board, and after some wrangling with the New England Revolution over the player's discovery rights, he was signed. He hasn't looked back since. The team is winning. The goals are flowing for both the player and the Galaxy, and a career that looked like it was caught in a blind alley is moving forward again.

Now Lletget is basking in the results of a game that had eluded him for so long. It's not just the goals or the assists that he savors, but the energy around the game as well.

"Even though that buzz prior to the game is hectic, and it's a feeling that's probably uncomfortable at times, the minute it's gone, you miss it," he says. "That feeling for a Sunday game, it's something inside you that you can't control. What's going to happen, the unknown.

"When players are about to retire, that's the first thing I ask them. I've spoken to many people about that, and it's the first thing they miss. Every game, instead of me being a little uncomfortable, I try to just enjoy that, and it makes me more calm. I go out now, and I'm barely nervous, just keeping my composure."

Francisco Lletget has noticed a change in his son's demeanor as well.

"Me and my wife, we are touching the sky with our hands because Sebastian is happy," he said. "He's in the atmosphere that he's supposed to be, and everybody likes him. If you have that, you're there. You just have to show what you got. If you see pictures, you can see the difference between then and now. He talks different, he smiles."

The question now is, what lies ahead for Lletget? If he continues to progress, would he be tempted by the siren call of Europe once again? He admits that he would, but he also values what he's accomplished with the Galaxy.

"Here, I feel wanted," he said. "It's nice to have that feeling. Everyone here is very professional, very respectful. They want to win. I want to win. They have a winning mentality. Everything just comes together perfectly at the moment."

That's what faith will do for you.