Efrain Alvarez, LA Galaxy breakout star, is Zlatan's 'cub' and faces a U.S. or Mexico decision
LOS ANGELES -- The LA Galaxy's 17-year-old forward, Efrain Alvarez, made his way out of Dignity Health Sports Park long after Swedish legend Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mexico national team midfielder Jonathan dos Santos and chart-topping pop star Becky G, who's dating LA Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget, were long gone.
Alvarez showered and changed following the Galaxy's 2-1 loss to Cruz Azul in Leagues Cup action on Aug. 20 before making the 30-minute drive back to his East Los Angeles home, where he lives under his parents' roof. A few hours later, his father, "Chencho" (a shortened version of Cresencio), and mother, Alicia, would wake up at 3:40 a.m. ahead of their 5 a.m. shift at a butcher shop.
As the son of Mexican immigrants, flipping between cultures and languages is a part of daily life, but the different worlds in which the teenage Alvarez has been moving have become increasingly marked since he became an integral part of the Galaxy's first-team squad this year. Alvarez has long been talked about in glowing terms, both for the Galaxy -- with whom he signed a professional deal at age 15 -- and at the youth national team level for Mexico and the U.S. (more on that later), but after impressing with an assist in his MLS debut in March, a lot of what has been said and written on a national level has revolved around his budding "bromance" with Ibrahimovic.
On the face of it, Ibrahimovic and Alvarez seem to have little in common. The former is 20 years older, almost a foot taller and has won a museum-worthy collection of trophies. Alvarez is barely taking his baby steps in a first-team professional environment, but Ibrahimovic has seen something in Alvarez and hasn't been afraid to talk him up.
"You have players that play football and you have players that think football," the Swede said in July. "He's a player that thinks football, and they're better players, because the guys that play football, they are trained to play football. The guys that think football, they are made to play football. That's a big difference."
Alvarez's father said that Ibrahimovic -- who famously likes to refer to himself as a lion -- looks after his son "as if he was his cub." And like any 17-year-old would, "Efra" is soaking up as much info as possible in return.
"[Zlatan] is such a cool guy," Alvarez told ESPN FC outside the Galaxy locker room. "Since I met him the first day, he always wanted to help me. I met him and he started giving me advice, and once you hear advice from him, you want to learn. He knows what it takes.
"He even said, 'If you need help, I'll help you; I just want the best for you. I know the potential you have, so I'm coming to help you; I'm not coming to hurt you or damage you. Other players, I kill them, but with you I see potential, so I'm trying to help you.'"
There might be more in common between Alvarez and Ibrahimovic than first meets the eye. Zlatan grew up in the notorious Rosengard neighborhood of Malmo, to parents from Bosnia and Croatia, and used soccer as an escape. Alvarez's start in the game was inspired at least in part by his parents' desire to steer him away from the pull of the streets in the City Terrace neighborhood of East L.A.
"[City Terrace] was a little scary; you couldn't walk around later than 8 p.m. or so," Alvarez said. "You could, but it was risky. There were a lot of gangs around us, so [my father] tried to help us avoid that with soccer the priority to get out of there."
To write that Alvarez's family is "football crazy" is an understatement. Chencho is a huge Chivas fan who emigrated to the United States 35 years ago from the Jalisco town of Jocotepec, on the banks of Lake Chapala. He met his Zacatecas-born wife in Los Angeles in 1987, settled in City Terrace in 1992 and had six kids, five of whom are involved in soccer. Chencho even used to coach, and he has invested a lot into steering his kids toward the game.
"It's exhausting because you have to dedicate a lot of time to them," Chencho said. "All your time is football: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Going from one place to another, from Monday to Thursday training, resting Friday and games on Saturday and Sunday -- and then I also work at a butchers."
"It's how we get by, how we live," he added. "We have to work hard."
Alvarez, who used to share a room with his four brothers, doesn't look like a kid on a soccer pitch. His sturdy frame means he can handle it in a physical sense, while his inner confidence shines through in his audacious style of play. Yet over the course of a lengthy interview, it took time for the twitchy teenager to open up.
Alvarez started to play at the age of 4, originally as a goalkeeper, but he cried when the ball hit him in the stomach during his first real game and soon learned that his natural position was at the other end of the pitch.
"After, the coach was like, 'I'm going to put you out on the field,'" Alvarez said. "I remember one day I got mad because we were losing, so I just took the ball and started taking everyone on, and then after that I was like, 'Wow, my position is there.'"
The youngster advanced quickly through youth soccer, regularly playing above his age group. He even caught Eric Cantona's eye at a training session at New York Cosmos West with the Frenchman, then the director of soccer for the Cosmos, drawn to the youngster's technical ability.
Stints at Cosmos, Total Futbol Academy and Chivas USA eventually led to the Galaxy, and naturally, U.S. Soccer kept tabs on him. Alvarez's youth national team career with the U.S. began at age 12, and he captained the U15s side in 2016. But he was left unhappy at how he and teammates were treated, something that caught the attention of Mexico's coaching staff.
"After U.S. camp, I didn't like it at all how they treated me, not only me but some other players," Alvarez said. "I don't [know] how Mexico found out, but they found out, and they came to talk to me, actually to my house."
Alvarez was asleep when Juan Carlos Ortega -- formerly director of youth national teams with the Mexican federation and now director of methodology and development with the Galaxy -- knocked on the door and made the case for Mexico.
"I was in my parents' room sleeping and the living room is next to it, so I woke up and I was in my shirt and boxers and I put on some shorts and walked out barefooted. I didn't recognize the guy, but my dad said, 'He's [from the Mexico] national team,'" Alvarez explained.
"So, he talked to me and my dad -- I was still half asleep -- and he told me he wanted to invite me to the Mexico national team and the next camp is two or three weeks from now. So, they asked if I'd like to go."
In September 2016, Alvarez switched to Mexico's team and has represented it at U15 and U17 levels in the years since. He also appears committed to El Tri for October's U17 World Cup in Brazil. But it's not guaranteed that the forward will always represent Mexico, according to Alvarez's father, who said the United States is "waiting for Mexico to commit a small error" and are "continuing to try" to bring him back into the fold of the Stars and Stripes.
Alvarez and his father met U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter earlier this year to talk about the USMNT's project.
"[Berhalter] is a really nice guy," Alvarez said. "He told me the process and everything for the U.S. team, how it's involving the youth and the thinking. It's a good thing that they have going."
But Mexico isn't sitting back. Head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino had planned to include Alvarez in a minicamp for young players in Mexico City Aug. 18-21 but was thwarted by Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto wanting to keep the youngster because of first-team commitments.
"The focus right now is Mexico," according to Alvarez, who will make a final decision on what is best for him and his family further down the line.
Alvarez's father is adamant that while he leans toward El Tri for emotional reasons, he understands that his son's roots are in the United States and that the final decision will be down to him.
"If he says Mexico, it is Mexico. If he says the United States, it's the United States -- and I say it with all the pain in my heart," said Alvarez's father. "I prefer Mexico because I am Mexican, but my son has his roots here, he was born here."
"At the end of the day, you respect both, but it's what you want yourself," is Alvarez's take. "You're going to talk to your family about it and see what they like and what didn't they like, and at the end of the day, it's the player's decision."
The appeal of an attacking player such as Alvarez is easy to see, but the message from those at the Galaxy is that there is still a long way to go to polish the raw elements. Dos Santos, who spent his youth career at Barcelona's famed training academy La Masia and is close to Alvarez, said Alvarez is a player with the potential to have a career with the Mexican national team. He describes him as an "uncut diamond" who "still has a lot to learn and improve."
Barros Schelotto is working to help Alvarez read plays quicker, understand his positioning and press at the right time. Then there is the tendency Alvarez has to go missing in games, showing an inconsistency that is common in younger players and needs to be worked on.
Alvarez's father is open in admitting he is concerned about the attention and relative fame going to his teenage son's head but is put at ease by the likes of Barros Schelotto, Ibrahimovic and dos Santos being on hand to steer him in the right direction. Alvarez's priority, away from the glitz and the glamour that he often is surrounded by these days, is to pay back those who have invested most in him where it counts.
"There's no other way to thank [my family] than working hard, being here, being the best I can be," Alvarez said. "That's the way I can show I'm thankful. Show them on the field what they deserve. To make them proud there."