Prodigal Alvarez must avoid pitfalls of Adu — and USMNT must make sure he doesn't get away

At 14, he was recognized as a bona fide prodigy with fairly limitless potential. At 15, he became a professional soccer player and people took note.

Sound familiar?

If Freddy Adu is still burrowed anywhere in your long-term memory, it probably does. Adu is 29 now. But he has become more cautionary tale of teenage hype than a real person still trying to outrun the shadow of the gargantuan expectations dropped on him before he could legally drive, a peripatetic journey that’s mostly been a slog of disappointment.

You probably aren’t entirely sure who the present-day analogue alluded to here is. And that’s very much by design. Efrain Alvarez – who just goes by Efra – is one of the most talented fully homegrown American players to come through in many years. He’s a left-footed playmaker from a working-class Mexican-American neighborhood in East Los Angeles. And he only just turned 16 at the start of this summer. Yet he’s been a professional for more than a year. And with such a precocious ascent comes the usual warnings and anxieties of this post-Adu American soccer scene.

We worried for Jozy Altidore, who is somehow considered an underperformer relative to his promise, in spite of being the national team’s third-leading scorer of all time, with a good chance of claiming the record shared by Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey for himself. And then we fretted over Juan Agudelo when he scored in his national team debut just shy of his 18th birthday, becoming the youngest USA goal-scorer ever — never mind that he became a solid Major League Soccer contributor.

That’s been the context for all subsequent teenage starlets, or at least until Christian Pulisic became the best national teamer as a teenager and turned the narrative on its head.

It falls to the L.A. Galaxy to shepherd Alvarez’s development, and they approach the task with caution. Sometimes the club offers glimpses of the tantalizing teenager, but mostly it keeps him out of the glare on its reserve team in the unglamorous second-tier United Soccer League.

Born in 2002 – yes, really – Efra is the fifth of six children. His parents migrated from Mexico in the early 1980s and both wound up working as butchers for the same company for the last few decades. His father’s weekends revolved around men’s league soccer, and his four sons tagged along.

The first two went professional. Geovani signed with Pachuca in Mexico but was loaned to Manzanillo, of the second and then the third tier. He only lasted two years. The second boy, Carlos, was the second overall MLS SuperDraft pick by now-defunct Chivas USA out of UConn in 2013 and still plays professionally for the Las Vegas Lights of the USL – where he is, as it happens, Freddy Adu’s teammate.

(Photo courtesy L.A. Galaxy)
(Photo courtesy L.A. Galaxy)

Then came Efra, who began kicking a ball just as soon as he could walk. “He always had a little soccer ball around him,” Carlos recalls. “Wherever he went, the soccer ball went with him.”

From the time he was 5, Efra played up against boys 8 or 9 years old. At 7 or so, he was picked up by the New York Cosmos, which then ran a West Coast academy. The story goes that its technical director, the former Manchester United superstar Eric Cantona, was deeply impressed by the boy. Efra was so young he had no idea who Cantona was. When Carlos joined Chivas USA, Efra moved over to its own academy. And when Chivas folded, he wound up with the Galaxy.

There, too, it was instantly evident that there was something about Efra. As Carlos tells it, when one of his youth teams went to train at FC Barcelona’s academy in some kind of exchange, the Catalan juggernaut hoped Efra would stay. But his parents were in no mood to uproot the entire family after working so hard to build a life in Los Angeles.

In his final season in the Galaxy’s academy, mostly as a 14-year-old, Efra led the Galaxy’s under-18s to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy championships, the biggest prize in youth soccer. He scored in the quarterfinal, semifinal and the final. He was ready for the next level.

The Alvarez parents pushed education on all their children. The kids took school seriously, just as they took everything seriously. Because their father was a serious man and they all emulated him. They envisioned a full ride to college for Efra, just as Carlos had gotten. But the realization dawned that Efra was so good, and the American game now so much further advanced, that he might skip it altogether. His parents sat their son down and asked him what he wanted to do with his life.

Soccer. Only soccer.

“We knew that he was special and we knew that contracts were going to come,” Carlos says.

On Aug. 2 of last year, Efra became the youngest signing in USL history when the Galaxy inked him to their reserve team, the Galaxy II, shortly after his 15th birthday on June 19 – just as Adu had been the youngest MLS signing as a 14-year-old. Efra would continue his education within the high school the Galaxy set up for its prospects, even though he was supposed to be an eighth-grader. He still hopes to get a college degree online after he gets his high school diploma. But then that’s the last thing anybody else has been thinking about in the past year.

When Alvarez moved up to the pros, there was some question about whether he could handle the physical and psychological load. “He was not only physically mature for his age, but also mentally and emotionally,” Munoz says.

Yet he would be competing against grown men, a literal boy among them. “There’s all these things that you have to take into consideration with Efra,” Munoz concedes. “And to be honest, when he started training with the second team, physically it took a toll on his body.” He got a knee injury requiring minor surgery in his first months as a pro.

“It was a lesson for us that, hey, listen, while soccer-wise and talent-wise and him being able to think three times faster than everybody else, he’s just not ready for the physical load yet,” Munoz says. “And that’s something that we had to build him into.”

But after a full preseason spent largely with the first team, Efra didn’t just hold his own in the competitive USL. He lit it up. He didn’t just score lots of goals. He scored spectacular ones, just as he had in the youth game.

On May 10, he became the youngest player to score a hat-trick in the USL.

And by May 18, he had racked up six goals in his last three games.

Even the Galaxy were astonished. “I would lie if I would tell you that some people didn’t feel like it would take him much longer to adapt to even the USL level, but he quickly squashed that,” says Galaxy II head coach Mike Munoz, who had previously run the academy. “He quickly showed everybody that that level is not an issue.”

This, in a sense, created a problem for the Galaxy. A luxury problem, sure, but a problem nonetheless.

On the one hand, the Galaxy plainly had a budding star on their hands. On the other, well, there’s that loaded history of budding American teenage phenoms. The Galaxy would have to thread the needle between promoting a potentially valuable asset and allowing him to mature and get accustomed to his new reality slowly.

The Galaxy sometimes highlighted Alvarez on social media but largely kept him out of the public eye. He didn’t give many interviews, or feature in any promotional materials. “In the case of Efra Alvarez and some of our other younger players, we highlight their play on the field while being mindful of their age and interaction directly with media,” Brendan Hannan, the Galaxy’s vice president of marketing, communication and digital, says in an email. “Our goal is to bring them along in a professional environment, from training to games and the marketing of the athletes is no different. We want to provide them the proper amount of exposure and help grow them into professionals at the right speed.”

Yet the development of soccer players is very much a business. And at some point, the Galaxy will likely have a chance to cash in on Alvarez when he’s ready to move on. This requires some positioning in the market, which Munoz plainly acknowledges.

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“It’s a two-way street,” he says. “It’s about keeping the kid humble, protecting Efra, making sure he doesn’t blow up too big, the Freddy Adu syndrome. But at the same time, we see potential and we live in a global game now and a global market. Who’s to say that after a [2019] U-17 World Cup on the international stage that we can’t sell Efra for $10 million to Mexico or Europe? So therefore it’s important to get his name out there and promote him. I’m not opposed to getting him out there on the stage because it not only helps him, but it helps what we’re doing [with the Galaxy] as well.”

So the club drew up a plan, a 2-year project. Efra would spend the entirety of the 2018 season with the second team. A first-team debut this year remains unlikely – “slim to none,” Munoz says of the chances – even though Alvarez has scored eight goals in just 12 appearances, as a midfielder, no less.

While a strong preseason next year will put him in the mix for first-team playing time, the Galaxy plan on bringing Alvarez along slowly through next October’s under-17 World Cup in Peru, where he’ll likely play for Mexico – but we’ll get to that. The club hopes to get him 35 to 40 professional appearances by then, between the first and reserve teams.

“We would hope that he’ll blow up on the international stage [in 2019] and then more options could open up for him,” Munoz says.

At that point, Alvarez will be 17 years and 4 months old.

In the meantime, the Galaxy shape and nurture him as best it can. “We just had that conversation with him today, about his off-the-field habits, his nutrition and taking care of himself,” Munoz says. “At some point, you’re not going to use your age as a crutch anymore. You’re entering a professional game, a man’s game. He’s 16. He likes to go to the movies. He likes to go bowling. He likes to hang out with friends. We just want to continue to make sure that we’re educating him in the right way so he’s making the best decisions.”

(Photo courtesy L.A. Galaxy)
(Photo courtesy L.A. Galaxy)

Alvarez trains with the first team almost every day. He has a locker next to one of his heroes, Mexico national teamer Jonathan Dos Santos. He also gets to practice with Jonathan’s brother Gio, who has more than 100 caps for Mexico, plays Efra’s position and is only 29, clouding Efra’s prospects for playing time.

Alvarez is sanguine about biding his time. “I see the team that we have,” he says. “I’m just trying to learn the most out of everyone.”

He demonstrates a remarkable patience for his age and ability. “Whatever they ask of me, I’m going to try to do. They tell me to just be patient and train hard,” Efra says. “I say to [former Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid], ‘Whatever they need, I’m there to help them out.’”

If anything has complicated Alvarez’s maturation, it’s perhaps his defection from the U.S. to the Mexican youth programs. He’d been a regular on the American under-15s, but accepted a call-up to Mexico’s under-17s. Reports conflict over the circumstances of the change – did the U.S. neglect him, opening the door for Mexico to come poaching? – but Alvarez insists that he simply wanted to experience a Mexican camp and wound up feeling comfortable.

He says he hasn’t made up his mind about his senior national team future.

“I’m happy with Mexico but I never closed the door to the U.S. as well,” Alvarez says.

After U.S. Soccer bungled the retention of the dual-national 19-year-old Jona Gonzalez, who was born in California but left the American program for Mexico, losing Efra as well would sting. And it could possibly reverberate for a generation. Because between Alvarez, Gonzalez and Pulisic, two-thirds of an American golden midfield generation could wind up playing for the arch-rivals south of the border.

That’s how high Efra’s ceiling appears to be. “The word potential makes me really nervous,” Munoz says. “A lot of things have to go in your favor. But I think he has the ability to go overseas. He has the ability to tick all the boxes for the highest level in our game.”

And what does Efra want?

“I want to go to Europe and play in a World Cup for Mexico,” he says.

A quick beat passes.

“Or the U.S.”

“Either one.”

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.