CARSON, Calif. – The LA Galaxy was in need of a spark in Saturday’s Major League Soccer regular-season opener against the Chicago Fire and found it in a most unusual place.
It came in the form of an unassuming 5-foot-8, 150-pound midfielder who doesn’t even turn 17 until June. But East Los Angeles’ Efrain Alvarez, playing in his first MLS game, turned out to be just what the five-time MLS Cup champions needed when he came off the bench in the 60th minute and assisted on a game-tying goal by Dan Steres eight minutes later. The Galaxy went on to win 2-1 in front of a Dignity Health Sports Park crowd of 25,866.
The Galaxy trailed 1-0 when head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto brought in Alvarez to replace another newcomer, Emil Cuello. Alvarez, heralded as the finest prospect produced by the Galaxy academy, showed off his impressive skills a short time later when he spun free from Chicago’s Aleksander Katai in the Fire penalty area and sent in a perfect crossing pass to Steres right in front of the Chicago net for a much-needed goal that made it 1-1.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic won it in the 80th minute when he headed in a rebound off a shot by Chris Pontius that caromed off the crossbar.
Alvarez, who at 15 years and 44 days became the youngest signing in USL history when he joined Galaxy II, made his professional debut as a 16-year-old last Oct. 7 in a Galaxy II match against Portland Timbers II. That might be why he was no more nervous than usual when Schelotto called his name Saturday.
“Honestly,” Alvarez said, “I’ve been anxious since last season and just wanted to get on the field.”
He finally got his chance, and it actually was more out of necessity. The Galaxy are hurting at midfield with injuries to Perry Kitchen, Sebastian Lletget and Juninho and the departure of Giovani dos Santos. And when Romain Alessandrini was lost just 18 minutes into the first half with an injured right leg and Cuello struggled, Schelotto went to Alvarez to provide a lift.
The soft-spoken Alvarez downplayed his impact on the tying goal and the game overall.
“Honestly,” he said, “I tried to give the best to my team and contribute as much as I could for my team, and I did.”
Schelotto carefully chose his words about the talented youngster who has spent time with U.S. and Mexican youth teams but has yet to pick which senior team he will play for.
“It’s very difficult to talk about him because he’s 16 years old,” he said. “You have to be professional when you are almost 20. If he works like a professional and is professional, then he will be the right professional.
“He looks like he’s 20, 22 or 23. He has a beautiful left foot; even today he made three or four passes, but he can be better, much better. We are confident he can get better in the future, but he has to work and have his feet on the ground.”
Schelotto also said he and his staff are intent on slowly bringing him along, although Alvarez clearly has shown he’s more than capable of handling pressure situations like the one he found himself in against Chicago.
“It’s not easy,” Schelotto said of the team’s plans for the 16-year-old. “I want to grow him, I want him to play, but sometimes the team needs another player or whatever.“Every day we are working with him. The point is to keep him growing, not just ‘That’s it.’ ”