After a few stops and starts, it appears the Tommy Thompson hype train is ready to take off once again.
The San Jose Earthquakes attacker possesses a skill-set that has long been the object of fascination for many American soccer observers.
Thompson is quick, skillful, creative and has a silky touch on the ball that few can match. Moreover, he’s fearless, always willing to dribble in the final third or attempt an audacious piece of skill that most wouldn’t dream of trying.
In the parlance of American soccer, Thompson “tries sh*t.”
Big things have been expected from Thompson ever since the Quakes signed him as a homegrown player in 2014 after his freshman season at Indiana University.
Too often though, prior to the 2017 season, Thompson failed to deliver on his promise.
There were flashes, of course, but they were all too infrequent. Thompson made just 21 starts combined in his first three MLS seasons, tallying exactly zero goals and zero assists. He found himself on loan at USL side Sacramento Republic on more than one occasion.
“It wasn’t easy but that’s part of what you sign up for when you enter the league at 18 years old,” Thompson told Goal.
Making things even more difficult for Thompson in the first three years of his career was the fact that the club’s leadership – head coaches Mark Watson and then Dominic Kinnear and general manager John Doyle – favored a more a workmanlike approach that left little room in the lineup for a slight-framed creative type like Thompson who wasn’t known for his defense.
That all changed in 2017. First, Jesse Fioranelli was brought in as the club’s general manager from Italian power Roma prior to the season Then in June, Kinnear was removed and replaced by Chris Leitch, a former Quakes player who had taken charge of the club’s academy in 2012 before becoming technical director in 2015.
With new leadership has come a new approach. It’s clear that this change has benefited few players more than Thompson, who has started five of the six league games Leitch has coached.
Thompson tried to be as diplomatic as possible when describing a change that has so clearly been a godsend for him.
“I want to make sure I word this carefully,” Thompson said deliberately before taking a long pause and eventually concluding: “I’m definitely excited about our new style of play.”
And why wouldn’t he be? Leitch has moved Thompson to the more central role that he prefers and given him more freedom to attack, put defenders on their heels, and yes, to try sh*t.
“I think if you’re going to have a player like Tommy on the ball in the final third, you have to also be OK with him taking risks,” Leitch told Goal .
“If you can communicate that with that player: when to take risks versus when to play it safe, and give him the liberty to try stuff and to express himself in dangerous parts of the field … I think that’s hopefully what an attacking player would want to hear.”
That creative freedom is music to the ears of a player like Thompson
“Chris Leitch has given me a license to go forward and to attack players,” Thompson said. “He wants me to create chances and he understands I might make a couple mistakes on the way.
“The role I’m playing is much more attacking and suits me better offensively. It’s allowed me more freedom and a little bit more of a license to put defenders on the back foot.”
Thompson has responded to Leitch’s faith by putting together the best run of form in his career. The 21-year-old has a goal and three assists in his last 12 league games after tallying no goals or assists in nearly three and a half seasons. With more than two months left in the regular season, he already has set career highs in games played, starts and minutes.
“You’re seeing what he always possessed,” Leitch said. “You’re seeing what I’ve always known he possesses, which is, especially for an American player, this really unique and great ability in the attacking third.”
Part of Leitch’s faith in Thompson likely stems from his familiarity. Leitch was at the helm of San Jose’s academy when Thompson was coming through as a teenager.
“He’s been coaching me since the academy days so he saw what I could do when I was 16, 17 years old,” Thompson recalls.
“He knew I was a dribbler so when he became my MLS coach, he remembered that kid in Sacramento that was playing freely and he wanted to see me do that in MLS, so he came up to me and said ‘I know what you’re capable of, go and do it.’”
Though he’s made big strides in 2017, Thompson still knows that his modest goal and assist tally needs to only be the beginning.
“I still want to impact the scoresheet more,” Thompson said. “I’ve started doing that this season more but I want to be a guy who’s getting goals and assists week in and week out.”
Now armed with the full belief of the club’s leadership, it seems like the TomThom hype train may finally be back on schedule.