To dedicated fans of the San Jose Earthquakes, news of the club's first homegrown player signing last January was met with resounding approval. That Earthquakes Academy product Tommy Thompson was that player, a talented 18-year old playmaking midfielder whose highlight videos caused grown men to swoon, served only to further their anticipation of seeing him stationed in the Quakes line-up. And when the team's fortunes on the field slipped in the first half of the season, fans clamored for the club's future star to be a part of the action, a savior in black and blue.
Wherefore art thou Tommy Thompson?
Following his tenure with the Academy in the spring of 2013, as well as a short stint with the Earthquakes Reserves, Thompson enrolled at Indiana University. He played one season of college soccer for the Hoosiers, helping them make the NCAA tournament and earning himself Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. An injury during the regular season kept him out of six games and hampered him going into the tournament. Wanting to bring him back to California for treatment expedited the Earthquakes efforts to sign him to a professional contract.
Thompson's injury, a troublesome right knee, required surgery, and it was nearly half a year before he could take to the Earthquakes training field again. And now, healthy again, the teenager has been everywhere but San Jose in recent weeks: on loan with the Sacramento Republic FC and with the U.S. U-20 men's national team for a tournament in Carson. On Sunday, he featured for the Quakes in the second half of their friendly with Atletico Madrid at Candlestick Park.
Could a return to the first team and MLS be far behind?
"I can't wait," said Thompson following his shift against Atleti. "Ever since I've been back from injury, I've put my head down and just been grinding. Working on my skills, working on my finishing, and getting back to that match fitness: Going to Sacramento has really helped me out with that. I've been able to get into tons of games in these past couple of weeks, and it's made me as ready as I'm ever going to be."
A native of Granite Bay, an outlying community of Sacramento, Thompson felt right at home playing for the Republic. After making a token three minute appearance for the Earthquakes at the conclusion of the team's 1-0 road loss at oronto FC on June 7, Thompson was sent on loan to the Quakes' USL PRO affiliate in an effort to get him more playing time.
"It's been a difficult time with Tommy," said Earthquakes head coach Mark Watson. "He had the surgery and it took us five months to get him back on. We want to move him along as quickly as possible, but we also want to be patient with him.
"It is important that he is getting games and developing," continued Watson. "Throughout this process, we were not able to do that, so we are fortunate to have Sacramento to do that for him."
He debuted for the capital city side on June 26, against Arizona United FC, and has played more than a half-dozen matches since, including a friendly against Mexico's Atlas FC. Following a two game road trip to the east coast that ended with a win against the Charlotte Eagles, Thompson flew cross-country to join the U.S. U-20s for the last two games of the National Training Center Invitational. He scored on his debut against Bermuda as part of the USA's 4-0 victory. Returning to Sacramento after the tournament, the midfielder played in both of the Republic's two friendlies against EPL side West Bromwich Albion.
Sunday against Atletico marked his first time back in black and blue since his inclusion in the Earthquakes match-day 18 against Chivas USA on July 2, and his first appearance since his MLS debut against Toronto.
"We brought in Tommy, and he fit right in," said Watson. "His attacking movement was good and we created a lot of chances. I thought he did really well."
When the halftime whistle sounded and players from both the Quakes and Atletico Madrid retreated to the locker room, Thompson stayed on the pitch to receive special instructions from assistant coach Nick Dasovic: get ready to start the second half. The intensity of his warm-ups increased, and when the teams returned to the field, Thompson stationed himself at forward.
"It was almost surreal," said Thompson. "It was a dream come true for me. I had my [MLS] debut already, but I was only out there for three minutes or so. This was a great opportunity for me. It was nice for me to be here and get acclimated with the guys, and I am excited to be playing again."
The first 45 minutes had finished scoreless, but Atleti looked the better attacking side. Thompson, along with substitute Billy Schuler, played with a scrappy energy in the second half that saw the balance of the game tip back toward the Earthquakes. Ten minutes in, Thompson had a one-on-one scoring opportunity against goalkeeper Miguel Moya, but he muffed the chance.
"I had so much space, but there is really no excuse for that," assessed Thompson. "I faked out the goalie and I went for the chip and I mishit it. But it's a learning process, and I am glad it happened in a friendly."
Thompson played the entire second half, but neither he nor his teammates could find the back of the net, and the game was decided on penalty kicks 4-3 in favor of Atletico. For coach Watson, it was an impressive 45 minutes from the 18-year old, especially as it came against one of the best club teams in the world.
"He is playing against some very good players, some strong players, top professionals," said Watson, "and he held his own. He had two or three really good chances, and he was in the clear one time. It's his first time really playing for us this year, after sitting out the first five months recovering from an injury, and I thought he did really well."
While Thompson did well enough to get the coach's attention, his permanent recall from Sacramento will likely be delayed a few more weeks. The Quakes as a whole are playing some very good soccer right now, and hope still exists that the current roster can pull itself out of the Western Conference cellar and into the race for the postseason. Watson sounded as if he wasn't quite ready to make Thompson a regular in his MLS match-day squad, so a return to the capital is likely to come next.
"The few months he has been playing and getting stronger, getting fitter, and playing really well," said Watson. "We've watched his games with Sacramento, we've watched his games with the national team, and he's on a really good path right now.
"Tommy is still a young guy, and he has a long way to go and a lot of development, but you can see that he has talent. We'll be monitoring his progress, and we'll look to bring him in as soon as he is ready."
Though not exactly what he wanted to hear, Thompson knows that he has to earn his way back to San Jose. The excitement of playing in the Bay Area for the first time as a member of the Earthquakes should provide plenty of motivation for Thompson to continue building up his fitness with the Republic. And he'll be ready for the phone to ring, whenever it comes.
"It's ultimately up to the coaches," said Thompson, "but I feel good and I feel in shape. I've got these young legs, so I can play plenty of games, and I've done exactly that in Sacramento. I feel fit and sharp, so I'm ready to go. It's up to the boss, and I'm waiting on the call."