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Player Spotlight: Working through ups and downs, Thompson hopes for third-year impact

Tommy Thompson realized early on things were going to be different in MLS.

Like so many potential professionals, Thompson had dominated his competition as a youngster. He racked up 52 goals and 21 assists over 54 games as a forward at Granite Bay High School outside of Sacramento, California.

He went on to the University of Indiana, where he scored five goals and notched three assists in an injury-shortened campaign and was named the Big Ten Conference’s Freshman of the Year. He created buzz as a member of the San Jose Earthquakes academy, even playing with the franchise’s reserve team.

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But things changed when Thompson signed a pro deal.

“For me personally, the adjustment was smooth going from high school to college,” Thompson told Goal USA. “But then, going from college to pro there was a lot to learn. There’s a lot less time on the ball and the windows for shooting opportunities get smaller and smaller.”

It wasn’t just the speed of the game that was an issue — it was also a much more physical league, something that wasn’t going to be easy for the 5-foot-7 Thompson to adjust to.

“I used to play as a striker in college but when you join an MLS team and start lining up with guys like Victor Bernardez or Clarence Goodson, you see how well they use their bodies and the different adjustments they’ve made to mark strikers,” he said. “That was one of the biggest learning curves for me as well — adjusting to the physicality of MLS.”

Those adjustments had to made on the field at first after his pro career was delayed before it began — missing his initial preseason and the first half of the 2014 season recovering from a torn meniscus picked up in his lone college campaign.

The complications kept him out until June and upon his return to the field, Thompson’s MLS career didn’t quite get off to a fast start. After a short debut against Toronto FC in June 2014, he headed off to Sacramento Republic FC on loan, though he did return to the Earthquakes and played in 12 more contests. Creating seven chances over his 13 games, Thompson cleared a big hurdle in 2014.

“When I made 13 appearances and made an impact my first year when I was 19 years old for the Earthquakes, that showed I could play at the level,” Thompson said. “But it also showed the weakness I had.”

Thompson and Earthquakes coach Dominic Kinnear both cite increased time in the weight room as a big plus for the midfielder. But physicality is only part of the package. Aspects of his overall game needed to be shored up, on the offensive and defensive end.

“I think he looks a little stronger,” Kinnear told Goal USA. “He’s done a ton of work in the offseason in the gym. He’s always had a good engine and a good touch. He’s looking strong on the ball right now and winning his fair share of tackles. When he does that, he gets his head up and looks to get the ball forward more.”

It wasn’t a surprise Thompson was rough around the edges given that he had only played forward before getting to San Jose. Since arriving, he’s worked to learn how to play on the wing, centrally in the midfield and, at times, as a secondary striker.

“I spent a lot of that time trying to become as versatile as I could,” Thompson said. “I wanted to make sure I was ready for the defensive side of the game in MLS and I wanted to make sure I was ready to play anywhere in the midfield. I wanted to work on my crossing so I could put dangerous balls in the box for our guys. I also wanted to make sure I worked on my finishing so I could impact the score sheet and hopefully make things happen for San Jose.”

But progress isn’t always linear. Year 2 for Thompson featured more ups and downs, as he went to the Under-20 World Cup with a U.S. side that made the quarterfinals. That was a high point.

“The only way to describe it is as a dream come true,” he said. “There’s nothing like pulling the U.S. jersey over your chest and seeing the U.S. symbol. It’s special. And to be able to have the chance to play and make an impact with the Under-20 team at the World Cup was something I’ll never forget.”

But beyond that, Thompson was forced to battle for his spot on the team, which had many well-regarded prospects in the midfield, including Gedion Zelalem and Emerson Hyndman. That type of competition provided a good reminder of what he has gone through and expects to continue to go through with the Earthquakes.

The downside is that international call-ups can be disruptive. Thompson headed off to the tournament, meaning he missed time with the Earthquakes. Though he ended up playing in four more games in 2015 (17), he made fewer starts (four compared to eight in 2014) and had less of an impact, creating just three chances. He has yet to bag his first MLS goal.

Entering Year 3 of his MLS career, Thompson is hoping to make a breakthrough. The dream is to start, but with lots of strong options in the midfield and out wide, the 20-year-old is preparing himself to contribute wherever he gets a chance. Kinnear believes he’s got the right mindset to do just that.

“The kid’s got talent, he’s had a real good preseason and his attitude is fantastic,” Kinnear said. “He’s a nice young man who just wants to play and get better.”

As for Thompson, he believes the experiences he’s had will lead him to success, though he’s taking nothing for granted.

“This preseason has been great for me because after two years I’ve learned what I needed to work on and I’ve been working to put it all together to have that perfect combination to have a breakout season,” he said. "But there are never any guarantees and you constantly have to prove yourself. So I’m working to put myself in the best position.”