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Bruce Arena gives Sebastian Lletget chance at a fresh start with U.S. national team

Bruce Arena gives Sebastian Lletget chance at a fresh start with U.S. national team
U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget advances the ball while under pressure from Jamaica's Je-Vaughn Watson during a game in February. (Billy Weeks / Associated Press)

Over the last eight years Sebastian Lletget's soccer career has taken him to three continents and more than 100 cities, only to lead him right back to where it all started for the biggest game of his career.

It's been anything but a smooth journey.

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So he'll take both the struggle and the success on to the field with him Friday for the U.S. in a crucial World Cup qualifier with Honduras at Avaya Stadium, just a few miles from where he once starred as a teenager with Santa Clara Sporting.

"It does make it extra special," Lletget said. "It just adds that extra taste to it."

Not that Friday's game needed many extras to make it special. After losing its first two games in the hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying, falling to the bottom of the six-team table, the U.S. desperately needs a win over Honduras to get back on track.

"We understand the position we're in," captain Michael Bradley said. "We didn't start the hex in the right way. Now Friday night is the beginning of our chance to put things right and get ourselves back in a good position."

Lletget could say the same thing.

Born to Argentine parents who considered soccer more a religion than a sport, Lletget couldn't stop kicking a ball around even when he had been called in for the night. His father Francisco said the boy was only expressing himself but Lletget's sisters complained when his errant shots shattered the kitchen window or broke other household items.

By the time he was in middle school Lletget's tireless practice had made him good enough to earn a trial with legendary Argentine club River Plate. But when he made the cut his mother Sara balked at the idea of her 12-year-old son moving to South America.

Four years later, after Lletget finished his junior year of high school, she relented, allowing him to leave for England to join West Ham United. When he left Carlos Brasil, Lletget's coach at Santa Clara Sporting, called him the best teenage player Northern California had ever produced.

With West Ham going through three coaches in as many years, Lletget's career stalled in East London and he appeared in just one first-team game in five years. So when Bruce Arena asked him to come back to California and play with the Galaxy in the spring of 2015, Lletget jumped at the chance.

Now Arena, who left the Galaxy to become coach of the national team last November, has given Lletget another opportunity. After calling him in to his first national team camp in January, he bought Lletget back for the World Cup qualifiers.

"Things are looking up," Lletget said. "It's an incredible thing. I've put in a lot of work and now I'm kind of reaping the benefits."

When he was added to the January roster, Lletget, 24, was considered something of an afterthought, a versatile player who completed a deep roster at midfield but one who would not necessarily stick around long enough to get into a game.

He quickly changed that perception and in the team's two winter friendlies he played more minutes than any other attacking player. Now he could wind up starting against Honduras in place of Galaxy teammate Jermaine Jones, who is suspended for Friday's game.

"Coming back from that camp I felt like 'yeah, I'm one of the best in this league and I can do things for my country as well,' " Lletget said. "I'm at the highest level and I'm only going to get better."

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Proving that he deserves a place at U.S. Soccer's head table has paid off for the Galaxy, too. By regaining some of the confidence that faded during his five lost years in London, Lletget has become an energetic and effective force in midfield during the team's slow start to the MLS season.

"That swagger, that I know I can do this and I know it's going to come off. [That] I can express myself. I've had to earn that right," Lletget said.

He's having to earn his place on the team in other ways as well. As one of the newest players on the roster, Lletget has been forced to carry equipment to and from the team bus every morning. And he's getting just six tickets to his homecoming game Friday, barely enough for his parents and the three sisters who spent their childhoods ducking behind the sofa to dodge a soccer ball.

For Lletget that seems a small price to pay for the chance to bring his career full circle, confident that this time it's going to be better.

"Everything," he said "is going to work out the way it's supposed to work out."

Twitter: kbaxter11

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