The skilled young midfielder, a star on the U.S. U-17 team, is off to develop his game at West Ham United.By Noah Davis
After two long years, Sebastian Lletget is finally on his way to England.
The 16-year-old, who scored two goals for the United States U-17 team during the CONCACAF Championship, helping the squad qualify for the World Cup later this year, told Goal.com he will leave the residency program in Bradenton, Florida to join West Ham United's youth academy in July.
According to U.S. U-17 head coach Wilmer Cabrera, Lletget will continue to shuttle back and forth between his new club team and the American youth side as it prepares for the World Cup in October. "Any environment where our residency players can improve and continue to develop their skills and their knowledge about the game [is positive]," Cabrera said.
The move to the Premier League club's academy, which produced Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, and Michael Carrick, among others and counts current U.S. National Team member Jonathan Spector as a member of its senior squad, has been the teen's dream since he trained there in 2006 after his Santa Clara Sporting coach, Carlos Brasil, arranged a three-week trial.
West Ham wanted Lletget's services from the outset, but it took until earlier this spring for the midfielder -- whose grandfather hails from Italy -- to secure an EU passport that would allow him to avoid FIFA's ban on international transfers of minors.
Through spokeswoman Laura Burkin, West Ham's director of youth development, Tony Carr, declined to participate in this story.
Until he leaves, Lletget will train with his agemates in Bradenton, Florida. It's been a circuitous route to this point for the footballer who Brasil says is tactically "beyond everybody else in his age group."
After shining on the American U-15 squad, Lletget received offers to join the American residency program. He turned them down, however, as he wanted to attend West Ham's academy, but was waiting to get his papers in order. Eventually, the U.S. Soccer Federation gave what both he and Brasil termed as an "ultimatum."
"They wanted him to go [into residency] about a year and a half ago and he didn't want to do it, because he wanted to go to England, so he said 'no' to it," his club coach said. "They finally gave him an ultimatum: If you want to be a part of the National Team, you need to come in. If not, forget about it."
"[I thought I was done] for the youth [national teams], definitely," Lletget said. "It was a big bummer, but at the moment it seemed like the best idea for me."
During a phone interview, Cabrera denied any knowledge of an ultimatum.
Lletget continued to play for his club side and traveled occasionally to Italy in order to secure his EU passport. This past November, he received a call from Cabrera. The coach asked if Lletget wanted to join a training camp.
"It was a big surprise for me, because I already said no to the program when I was in the U-15s," he said. "I thought, 'That's it for me' [as a member of the U.S.'s youth sides], but they called me back."
After a successful training stint, Lletget joined the U-17 Residency program in February. As the newest member, he was low on the team's depth chart. Because the teen thought he was playing better than the attacking midfielders ahead of him, including much-praised Charles Renken, the lack of playing time was difficult to handle.
"Every time I would come in, I would do really well and I would get frustrated," Lletget said. "I was doing really well, but I wasn't getting my credit."
The turning point came in late March during a match in Uruguay. Lletget replaced Renken, who injured himself during the opening minutes of the game, and scored the American's only goal. Ever since, he has been a fixture in the starting XI.
"He is a very good technical player," Cabrera affirmed. "He reads the game well."
Lletget liked playing with the U-17 team, but longed to cross the pond where he'd have more freedom.
"To be honest, your social status in residency really is a big letdown for all the guys, not just me," he stated. "You're always stuck together. You can't go out, and we're very restricted. We're very limited in our options to go anywhere. We're away from our families.
"For a 16-year-old, the social thing is a big difference."
It's no surprise that the youngster who adores the sport longs to play in a country where "they love it so much it hurts them."
Since he has Italian heritage, Lletget has the option to ply his trade for Italy if invited. If the Azzurri came calling, would he follow the path of American-born Giuseppe Rossi?
Rossi, like Lletget, was born in the U.S., but with his family's Italian heritage, transitioned to Italian youth teams and is now cap-tied to that country.
"If I got the chance, I would probably take it," Lletget acknowledged without taking much time for a second thought. "My heart's always going to be with the U.S., it's just that playing for a European team is amazing. It's just a higher level. That's how far I want to push it."
Another young player, who like Lletget featured for the U-17 U.S. squad, switched his playing affiliation just before the deadline of his 21st birthday, which FIFA rules allow on a one-time basis. Neven Subotic now features for Serbia, the country where his father was born.
Unfortunately, for the United States National Team, it seems increasingly clear that Lletget's passion for the game - the same passion that's won him a position at one of the world's foremost youth academies -- might push him right out of the American player pool.
Noah Davis covers the United States National Team for Goal.com.
For more on the U.S. National Team visit Goal.com's U.S. National Team page