Luca de la Torre is used to betting on himself and coming out ahead in the end. At age 15, he left San Diego to join the academy of English side Fulham. He rose through the ranks and eventually broke through to the first team, but when playing time proved limited, De la Torre moved to modest Dutch side Heracles Almelo in 2020.
It could have been viewed as a step down, but he got the steady playing time he was seeking and became a regular contributor there, which enabled him to force his way into the reckoning of U.S. men's national team manager Gregg Berhalter. De La Torre has seen his stock skyrocket in 2022; now he's making his biggest wager yet, completing a move to Spain and joining LaLiga side Celta Vigo on Friday for a bargain transfer fee of just over $2 million.
The 24-year-old midfielder is heading to arguably the top league in the world, one that will test him like never before. But it's a move he welcomes.
"It's the type of step up that I wanted, to a really good league, and a team that kind of fits my style of play," he told ESPN via telephone from Vigo. "They like to keep the ball. They like to play really attacking football. Also, the manager demands a lot of work ethic off the ball, which I think kind of describes me as a player, so it's a really good place to be."
Perhaps the biggest risk for De la Torre is how the move will impact his United States national team prospects. Had he stayed with Heracles, he almost certainly would have been guaranteed playing time, albeit in the Dutch second tier following the club's relegation. That scenario was unlikely to improve his odds of making the U.S. squad for Qatar. But now he'll be trying to break into a Celta side that finished 11th last year, with the World Cup just four months away.
In a translated report from Spanish outlet Marca, De la Torre was described as a player "to raise the competition level in the squad, but not to initially be a starting player." That characterization isn't necessarily flattering, but the situation is one that De la Torre doesn't find daunting. After all, he's been here before.
"I think that the way I see myself, whatever move I have to end up making in my career, it's always going to be ambitious, and a step up in competition," he said. "I welcome that, really. That's why I've been successful with the national team, because I've kind of embraced that situation. So I'm happy to have that here. And I had to win my place with Heracles as well. It's always the same in football. I think it's gonna be really enjoyable here, with really good players."
The move will come with the usual demands in terms of adaptation to a new culture and language. De la Torre holds a Spanish passport through his father, but whatever Spanish language skills he had disappeared long ago. "I'm going to need to take lessons," he said.
There is the adjustment to the team's style as well, though De la Torre believes that his passing and ability to move the ball on the dribble match up well with his new environment. "I think that a lot of people would say I'm kind of a stereotypical Spanish player, you know, really technical," he said. "So I think I'll fit in well here."
De la Torre's ambitions for club and country have long been intertwined, and his move to Heracles was made with his international aspirations in mind. Playing every week in the Dutch league increased his confidence, and De la Torre says he knows more about himself as a player now, how hard he can work off the ball and the extent to which he can help his team with it. "It just really let me come into my own," he said.
He enjoyed the same progression with the U.S. team. It was only toward the end of 2021 that De la Torre found himself getting called up with the full squad and as World Cup qualification went on, his responsibilities increased, including starts in critical matches against Honduras and Panama, both of which the U.S. won.
"I think it just came down to taking my chances when I was playing for the national team," he said. "I kind of had this feeling that every time I played, I had to be one of the best players on the field or make really good actions if I got a few minutes off the bench. [Otherwise], it'd be hard to get another chance. I think I really kind of embraced that feeling and was quite consistent I think in the chances I got."
Such has been De la Torre's progression that he isn't just aiming to get on the plane to Qatar, but burrow his way into the starting lineup. Given Berhalter's continued tinkering with his midfield and with injuries always a factor, that objective is within reach. Taking hold of it will require making the most of his move to Celta. De la Torre said Berhalter gave the move his blessing given how it fits the player's skill set.
"I have to adjust to a new club, and that usually takes time, but I want to get going as soon as I can, get minutes, really show my quality here so that I can make an impact with the national team," he said.
De la Torre's latest bet has been made. Now it's time to see if it will pay off.