'I was crying': Sebastian Lletget vanquishes injury demons by sparking U.S. win

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- As the final whistle blew, confirming the U.S. men's national team 2-0 win over Costa Rica, the emotions proved to be too much for Sebastian Lletget. Tears were shed, not because his goal and assist keyed the U.S. team's win, or the fact that his family and friends were on hand to see it, but because of the path he had taken to get to this moment.

Back in March 2017, Lletget was making his third national team appearance in a crucial World Cup qualifier against Honduras in the same venue as Saturday's match. No sooner had he put the U.S. on top with the opening goal when his night ended courtesy of a crunching tackle from Ever Alvarado. An initial diagnosis of a sprained foot was later revealed to be what is called a Lisfranc fracture that involved torn ligaments as well. Lletget missed the rest of the 2017 season, and struggled to find his best form in 2018.

On Saturday, Lletget, a product of nearby El Camino High School in South San Francisco, slayed whatever demons were left. He nodded home a cross from fellow substitute Jonathan Lewis in the 80th minute, and then put Paul Arriola in the clear to score the home side's second eight minutes later. As he stood in the mixed zone afterward with the match ball given to him by coach Gregg Berhalter, Lletget admitted just how emotional the day was.

"I was [crying], I'm not going to lie," he said. "It was just because people don't realize what it is for an athlete, when you get injured like that. And then just in this particular stadium, I got the goosebumps even training here yesterday morning with the team. And especially this new era, this breath of fresh air, I think the whole team and the whole federation should be really proud of where we're going."

As for the venue, Lletget later added, "I think I have a brand new memory of this place. Every time I come to this place from now on, I think it will be a much brighter moment, much more positive."

There was also another emotional layer for Lletget. In last week's game against Panama, the team wore special armbands in recognition of former LA Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid, who died on Christmas Day. On Saturday, Lletget took the opportunity to wear the armband again in recognition of his old coach.

"I had it on for Sigi, because he's an amazing coach and he did a lot for me," Lletget said. "Even if it didn't work out the way we all [hoped] it would, he was still an amazing coach."

To hear Berhalter tell it, the past month, complete with a training camp and crash course in the new coach's playing style, has not come easily for Lletget. The Galaxy midfielder has long been recognized as having special ability on the ball. The problem was finding him a position. With the Galaxy alone, he has played as an attacking midfielder, a wide player, and a deep-lying playmaker. In Berhalter's system, Lletget has played as an advanced attacker underneath a single striker, and the subtle nuances in terms of positioning had been difficult to pick up. Yet while he hasn't been on from the start, in both matches he showed what he's capable of in the attacking third, and was a difference-maker against the Ticos.

"I think it was part of his mentality to hang in there and keep going, keep learning, keep pushing himself that got him into these positions," Berhalter said about Lletget.

For the U.S., Saturday's match was reminiscent of Lletget's journey over the past month. In the first half, the home side struggled mightily to create much of anything in the attacking third of the field against a Costa Rica side that was much more organized and had more bite than Panama did a week ago. But the U.S. came out after halftime looking sharper, playing faster, and spreading the field to find attacking players, Arriola in particular. Even after both Nick Lima and Cristian Roldan hit the post, the U.S. kept at its task and found the breakthrough.

"I think initially we weren't really matching their intensity," said midfielder Wil Trapp, who was among those who lifted their game after halftime. "But I think in the second half we were just a little bit braver. We wanted the ball and got the ball into tough spots and just stuck to the game plan, which is breaking lines, turning in pockets and playing behind them."

Beyond the individual performances of Lletget, Arriola, Lewis, Lima and Aaron Long, the fact that the U.S. kept at its task and wore down Costa Rica counted as the most encouraging development of the day. Not every game is going to be a stroll like Panama was. And there will no doubt be games where the U.S. won't have things its own way. But rather than get frustrated or deviate from the game plan, the U.S. stayed focused, and it paid off.

"We certainly learned that if we can continue to persevere, if we can continue to try to our play game, it has a cumulative effect on the opponent," Berhalter said. "You saw what happened to Costa Rica, they got very fatigued in the second half, they couldn't match us and I liked that mentality from the group."

The way the U.S. secured the result speaks well to the foundation that has been laid by Berhalter and his staff over the past month. Buy-in from players can't be taken for granted, and it was evident that the players in this camp have taken to the new system.

Yet it's worth noting that what took place in the past two games are merely the first bricks to be laid on what will be a long road to World Cup qualification. And for all of the good vibes emanating from the U.S. squad at the moment, the ensuing challenges will come quickly, starting next month when the full team is called in for a pair of friendlies in late March. It is then that the likes of Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie will get their first taste of Berhalter's approach, and will need to be won over.

"I think it will continue to be a work in progress," Berhalter said. "When you integrate new players into camp -- and we expect to integrate new players in March -- it will be another process. What we learned was how to effectively teach parts of how we want to play in a short period of time."

A few players in the current camp will have that to look forward to. Lletget figures to be among them.