CARSON, Calif. – At the age of 15, Efrain Alvarez is already making a name for himself across the American soccer landscape.
One of the most promising American-born talents in recent years, Alvarez rapidly flourished from touted Academy prospect into potential first team option for the LA Galaxy. In his first full season as a member of LA Galaxy II, the East Los Angeles native has made highlight goals a part of his repertoire, seemingly adding a beauty with each passing game.
Success is nothing new for the youngster, who has been wowing observers since elementary school.
At the age of seven, Alvarez was already testing himself against older players as a member of the New York Cosmos West youth club U-9 team. A routine training session soon turned extraordinary as Eric Cantona, Manchester United legend and at the time Director of Soccer with the New York Cosmos, visited the training session to run the ruler over some of the academy side’s older teams.
Finding nothing to his standard with the U-17 or U-19 teams, Cantona turned his well-trained eye to Efra’s U-9 team. There he spotted Alvarez, and according to those who were there uttered the following in his brusque French accent,
“I’ve seen enough; I just want to watch this kid all day.”
To earn such praise from soccer icon such as Cantona would be a life-changing experience for other prospects, but for Alvarez, it merely added spark in a fuel lit long prior.
“I always try to prove those who believe in me right," Alvarez told LAGalaxy.com. "For someone of his caliber to see me makes me feel good, but it doesn’t mean that I will stop working.”
Alvarez was born into a soccer-loving Mexican family with the type of pedigree that other players could only envy. The youngest of six siblings, two of Alvarez’s older brothers -- Gio and Carlos -- have played professionally – with Carlos, a former top three MLS SuperDraft pick, currently playing for the USL’s Las Vegas Lights. The youngest of six siblings, Diego, is a member of the LA Galaxy Academy.
"Honestly, my dad [Cresencio] pushed me to my limits, and he still does. My dad always forced my brothers and me to do the best, even at school. My parents wanted us to get the best grades ever," the quiet but intelligent teenager says. "That’s one thing. I honestly work hard. My dad is the most passionate about soccer, and even today if he sees anything wrong he’ll still tell me.
"And my brothers are like teachers to me. I looked up to them— I still do. I look up to them. They tell me the right and wrong things to do. They have been there, so I always try to listen to them."
From his time playing in the parks of East Los Angeles with his older brothers to his storied Academy career, Alvarez was forced at a young age to test himself to overcome the physical challenges created by facing older opposition.
As early as age six, Alvarez found himself competing against players two years his senior who were faster and stronger. Initially, the challenge seemed too daunting for the youngster, but soon his technical ability drew the eye of bigger and bigger clubs before he landed at the LA Galaxy Academy.
Facing off against older players wasn’t easy for Alvarez, but his talented flourished against the competition, according to Galaxy Academy coach Brian Kleiban who first met the youngster at nine.
“A lot of his mental fortitude has come from his upbringing," Kleiban told LAGalaxy.com. "I’ve known the family for a long, long time, and they never sugar coat it for him. He’s always had to learn the hard way, and that has driven him to get to where he is today.
“He has a unique God-given talent that wasn’t taught. He was born with that. Over the years, he’s been ultra-competitive, and he’s always learned by playing up two years. He’s so good playing against those his own age, so we’d always play him up. He’d always have success even though he was smaller. The thing that set him apart is that usually when you have a prodigy, it’s based on physical tools. The player is way more athletic and physically mature, but with Efra it’s the opposite. His success is based on technical attributes like game intelligence and vision.”
Galaxy Academy manager, William Bizzaro, one of the youngsters' first academy coaches, agrees.
“From day one, everyone knew his class. He was playing above his means; he was playing well. Everyone saw his talent and knew that he had something special,” Bizzaro said. “Maturity-wise, he’s become a really good person. He’s a good teammate because everyone loves him on and off the field. He always had to be more mature because he always dealt with his brothers."
Alvarez’s playmaking ability and vision on the field translated into success at the academy level as the youngster from East LA flourished at the academy level before becoming the youngest signing in USL history.
Academy success is nothing new for graduates of the Galaxy Academy, but Alvarez says that his aspirations lie beyond his present success.
"From my heart, I know that I have to work hard every game. There is no day to rest. When I am in the lockers room, and I see Gio prepare for games, I think to myself that one day I want to be like him."
Now a full-fledged member of the first team, Alvarez has set his sights on making his debut for the senior squad this season. Playing with Sigi Schmid’s squad would be nothing new for the teenager who spent the entire preseason with the team.
During his time with the group, the young Mexican youth international quickly befriended the Galaxy’s Mexican tandem of Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos. Given their shared heritage, the two Mexican internationals were eager to take the youngster under their wing and provide him with the guidance needed to succeed.
“I enjoy speaking to them, and they try to help me no matter what," Alvarez said. "I thank them for being so helpful, but at the same time, I am learning from them."
Giovani is quite familiar with the stresses faced by young talent and has not been shy about taking Alvarez under his wing to help him navigate the pro landscape.
“I see a lot of talent, and he’s 15, so I try to guide him. He’s smart and good with the ball,” dos Santos said. “He’s got a lot of talent, and he’s learning. At that age, some players don’t want to learn, but he’s willing. He has a bright future ahead of him.”
Alvarez is already seeking to match one of Giovani's great achievements as the attacker figures to play a major role for the Mexico U-17 squad at the 2019 U-17 World Cup in Peru -- coincidentally enough, the site of Gio’s World Cup achievement more than a decade ago.
With goals at the international and club level, Alvarez is determined to prove that he can translate his promise into reality, and hopefully make an impact for the Galaxy's senior team sooner rather than later.
But true to his hard-working spirit, Alvarez knows that it won't be easy.
"Honestly, I thank Galaxy. I thank everyone. I am just happy they gave me the opportunity, and I signed for my home club,” Alvarez said. “I am ready to give it my all for them. I am just going to work hard and be happy wherever Sigi Schmid puts me. I honestly want to play for the first team, but at the end of the day, it’s his choice.
“I love to play. This is my life."