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Column: At 16, Galaxy’s Efrain Alvarez already looks like a star in the making

Chicago Fire v Los Angeles Galaxy
Efrain Alvarez (26) Uriel Antuna (18) and Servando Carrasco (6) of the Galaxy celebrate their first goal against the Chicago Fire at Dignity Health Sports Park.
(Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

The instinct to protect the teenager was quickly overtaken by the exuberance over his gifts.

So while Zlatan Ibrahimovic reminded the gathered audience of his teammate’s age, the Swedish striker finished his thought by declaring, “He’s the best talent in MLS by far.”

What was the point in concealing something this obvious?

Los Angeles has a new star. American soccer does too ... maybe.

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He is 16 years old, he is from East Los Angeles and he was the player most responsible for the comeback that resulted in the Galaxy’s 2-1 season-opening victory over the Chicago Fire at Dignity Health Sports Park.

His name is Efrain Alvarez.

Becoming the Galaxy’s youngest-ever player when he made his MLS debut as a 60th-minute substitute, Alvarez helped create both of his team’s goals with a few strokes of his left foot.

What the Galaxy saw in training over the last six weeks — the last year, actually — came into public view only eight minutes after he entered the game.

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With the Galaxy down 1-0, Alvarez collected a loose ball on the right edge of the penalty box. He opened his body as if he was preparing to cross the ball with his left foot, only to suddenly cut to his right. Fire midfielder Aleksandar Katai was frozen.

Before reaching the end line, Alvarez opened up his left foot and flicked the ball the middle of the six-yard box, from where defender Daniel Steres nodded in the equalizing goal.

If what Alvarez did on that play was something that can’t be taught, what he did on the next was a credit to his solid foundation.

Receiving an 80th-minute throw-in from Rolf Feltscher down right flank with former World Cup champion Bastian Schweinsteiger draped over his back, Alvarez slanted the ball toward the penalty box on a single touch. Chris Pontius ran onto the pass, dribbled in a couple of paces and smashed a left-footed shot into the crossbar. Ibrahimovic headed in the rebound.

The Galaxy was only a day removed from buying out the final year of underperforming Giovani dos Santos’ contract. David Beckham’s statue was unveiled before the game. Guillermo Barros Schelotto coached his first game for the Galaxy.

By the time the announced crowd of 25,866 streamed out of the stadium, none of that mattered. This night was about Alvarez.

How he set up the goals was only part of the story. His demonstrated an advanced understanding of the game with his movement, such as when Ibrahimovic received a ball in the Fire’s half of the field in the 82nd minute. By dropping back, Alvarez not only presented Ibrahimovic with a target, but also opened a passing lane to Emmanuel Boateng, who was making a run behind the Fire defense.

“You can see he has something,” Galaxy President Chris Klein said.

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Encircled by television cameras in the Galaxy locker room after the game, Alvarez transformed back into a normal 16-year-old, soft-spoken and admittedly still concerned about pimples.

“Honestly, not just for myself, but I’m happy the team got the win,” Alvarez said.

The performance is certain to restart conversations about whether Alvarez will play for the United States or Mexico in international competitions. Alvarez has represented both countries at the youth level, most recently for Mexico. He didn’t offer any more clarity on the situation.

The responsibility of injecting humor into the scene predictably fell on Ibrahimovic. Asked how he has tried to help Alvarez, Ibrahimovic joked, “I slap him if he don’t do what I tell him.”

When the laughter around him started to subside, Ibrahimovic offered a serious appraisal of his teammate.

“He’s a good guy, he’s a good kid. He works hard, he listens and he wants to improve and he wants to get better.”

Ibrahimovic called on the Galaxy to do right by Alvarez, to shield him from expectations and to do what it can to help his development.

Schelotto has already helped. Alvarez signed with the Galaxy last year but played only for its minor league affiliate. Schelotto was determined to give him a chance.

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“He likes young players,” Klein said of the new coach. “He doesn’t care if they’re 16 or 38.”

Guiding a player this young has challenges, Schelotto acknowledged.

“It’s not easy because many times, the team has needs and the growth of the player has its own,” Schelotto said in Spanish.

Like Ibrahimovic, Schelotto was quick to mention Alvarez’s age.

But, he added, “He looks like he’s 20 or 22, 23.”

He looks like a star in the making.

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dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez


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