“Everything I am in soccer I owe to my father.” LA Galaxy’s budding star Ariel Lassiter said it the way he’s said it hundreds of times before when asked about the influence his father, Roy, has on his game. It must get old for a 23 year-old striker trying to find his own way – the inevitable comparisons and the impossibility of mentioning son without holding a mental yardstick up to father. But that’s what happens when you get involved in the family business – and the Lassiter family business is scoring goals.
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You see the resemblance a little around the eyes. The hair’s the same and so’s the cheeky grin. But the differences between the two Lassiters are the most obvious, especially out on the field. Roy was a hard-charging center-forward – the term old-fashioned applies. He hunted goals with his speed and power, preying on mistakes and pouncing on half-chances in the penalty area. But his son, wispier and lean, is a creator. He floats in from wide channels and makes something from nothing. And while Roy – whose MLS record of 27 goals in 30 MLS games in 1996 still stands – has done his level best to pass on wisdom to his boy, many of the things that make young Ariel shine aren’t easily taught.
(Roy Lassiter, Ariel's dad, lined up 34 times for the U.S. National Team and won an MLS title in 1999)
Ariel grew up in the game. He watched his dad’s training sessions from up-close, and at low vantage, when he was a boy. He soaked up what there was to see and feel. He remembers mostly his dad’s goals – of which there were many (88 in his MLS career and more in Costa Rica and Italy). “I want to show that I have a lot to give the sport like he did, but I’m still learning and maybe I’m showing glimpses here and there that I can be great.” The stress on the pronoun, the ever-improving I, is subtle – but it’s there. This young striker's eager to show what he can do, what makes him special – and he’s been doing just that for a second straight year in the U.S. Open Cup.
Cup Lessons & Exploits
Consistent playing time in MLS has been sporadic for Ariel since he made the move up from the club’s USL affiliate LA Galaxy II, but he’s been on fire in the 105-year-old Open Cup. Last year he scored a screamer against Sacramento Republic and this year he grabbed two goals to settle the affair against SoCal's FC Golden State Force – an amateur side that put up an admirable fight against the full pros. Lassiter’s first goal against the Premier Development League (PDL) club was a piece of tight control in the box – a clever goal without too much salt or pepper. But the second was an obvious and overt work of art – a flying overhead kick that had anyone who saw it standing at attention.
“I would probably say that bicycle-kick was the second-best goal I’ve scored with the Galaxy,” said Lassiter, his voice on the high side and his responses measured. He takes his time before answering. He scored a 35-yard screamer last year against Rio Grande Valley that he says, “went right in” the top corner. And it’s telling that he skips talking about his second goal – a circus act with all the bells and whistles – instead preferring to focus on his first from the Fourth Round Cup game. It’s the student in him coming out – the young striver wanting to work hard to get better at his game the way his old man and former coach always preached. “I liked that first one. I’ve been working on that kind of thing a lot after training. To beat my man and make a little space and curl the ball home without having to hammer it. Just finding a little gap where there wasn’t one before.”
(His second against FC Golden State Force in the Fourth Round of the 2018 Open Cup was a work of art)
This is where Ariel is not his father’s son. Roy was a freight train with only goals on the brain, and he needed service. Ariel is the service. He’s creative and he’s showing glimpses of greatness in his own right. “My dad was a real box player, but I feel like I’m a more creative, a more flare kind of player. I’ve always liked the flicks and tricks and I like to get myself into the box with the ball at my feet. I like to sniff out chances and break my way in.” Roy, now 49 and still coaching the game, agrees: “He’s [Ariel] a more technical player, and more savvy than I ever was.”
Like some of the most irresistible performers in the game today – your Messis and your CR7s and Neymars – Ariel Lassiter likes to drift out and occupy a wide position. “If I’m coming in off the right, I like to cut in and shoot with my left,” he said. But he’s just as comfortable coming in off the left side and teasing defenders en route to goal. He’s in a gray area somewhere between winger and striker. He’s a hybrid. And he’s got the potential to be much more than just a goal-scorer. “Out wide is where I like to approach the game,” said Ariel, who scored one goal in 18 appearances for the Galaxy senior team last year. “I feel at home out there and it’s a place where I can keep the defense unbalanced.”
Still in the MLS Classroom
Ariel grew up learning golden lessons from one of the best strikers of the early MLS era and now he’s taken a seat in the classroom of some of that same league’s high-wattage latter-day superstars. “You’re never going to learn more as a striker than by watching Robbie Keane, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Landon Donovan, even Gio dos Santos,” said Lassiter, talking about how he listens astutely and asks questions of his more experienced teammates in the LA Galaxy locker room. “I’m a listener and I’m always watching the guys around me who’ve been at the top levels for a long time. I always ask questions like: ‘how would you do this in this situation…that kind of thing.”
(In addition to learning under his famous father, Roy, Ariel's had Zlatan, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan as tutors)
Being a young, eager question-asker and mental note-taker might seem like an intimidating business in the shadow of an outsized personality like Zlatan Ibrahimovic. “Nah, he’s great person first of all,” confirms Lassiter about his fellow striker and global iconoclast. “He likes to joke around, but when it comes time to being on the pitch, it’s all serious business with him. He has a perfect background for me to learn from. He expects a lot of himself and his teammates. And when he tells me something, whether it’s positive or negative, I pay attention. It’s all part of me growing as a player.”
It’s early days yet in the career of Ariel Lassiter, and you get the sense that no one at the Galaxy wants to make too many grand statements about his potential. Head coach Sigi Schmid even chided his two-goal Open Cup scorer for not scoring five, “like he could have.” The striker is still learning, still prodding and probing for the holes and the gaps. Still asking questions and committing answers to memory. He’s looking for the best way, like his old man before him, but he’s taking his own route to the goal.