Player Spotlight

For the Thompson Clan, Soccer Is a Family Affair

San Jose Earthquakes forward Tommy Thompson is currently with the U.S. under-20 team in Marbella, Spain—which should surprise exactly nobody. From early on, soccer permeated Thompson's life.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
November 13, 2014
11:31 AM
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES ATTACKER Tommy Thompson, 19, is one of the best teenagers in Major League Soccer. He will likely be part of the United States under-20 team that will seek to qualify for next year's U-20 World Cup in New Zealand. He has a legitimate shot at representing the U.S. at the 2016 Olympics.

And he is absolutely, positively a chip off the old block.

Tommy Thompson's father is Gregg Thompson, 53, a former U.S. national team player who scored one of the most famous collegiate goals ever when he tallied in the eighth overtime of the 1982 National Championship, giving Indiana University a 2-1 win over Duke. The elder Thompson also made the United States' 1984 Olympic team and scored a memorable goal against Egypt in a 1-1 draw in front of a sold-out crowd at Stanford Stadium.

Gregg Thompson's three sons are all high-level soccer players. In addition to Tommy, Ty Thompson is a junior midfielder for Stanford University's No.2-ranked squad and Tanner Thompson, a sophomore, plays in the midfield for Indiana University, which is ranked sixth.

And no, it's not a coincidence. Gregg was heavily involved in his sons' development, running soccer camps and serving as coach for many of their teams. While he was able to instill the passion for the game into his children, he is still shocked at how different the sport is today compared with when he grew up playing in the 1970s.

When he compares American player development now to his generation, he notices the improvement but wonders if the early ages in which they become solely specialized is best for their overall athletic development.

“It is way different now,” Gregg said. “Back in the day we were multi-sport. We played soccer, baseball, and all that kind of stuff. Tommy and his brothers had a soccer ball in the house [early on]. I was thinking about that the other day just because the balls were always around: ‘Wow, is that basically what it is going to take to get to the highest level? To have a soccer ball inside somebody’s house at age one or two, just nudging it around when they first walk?’

"They specialize in it early now, and in some ways it is disappointing, but that is how it is these days.”

When speaking with the three soccer-playing Thompson kids, they all say that soccer was a natural choice and none of them felt compelled to take part. Gregg would often insist on breaks but it was the sons who quickly begged to play again.

“I pushed them hard at times,” Gregg acknowledged. “But as a little gut check I would tell them at a young age, ‘OK, these next two-three weeks, there’s nothing. We’re going to go to Lake Tahoe. We’re not going to touch a soccer ball. That’s it, period, end of story.’

"In the back of my mind I was hoping they would say they wanted to play. But just for my own sanity, I wanted to make it sure it was them leading on this, not me. I would do it once a year and fortunately they would always say, ‘No, chance. I want to play in this tournament.’”

Eldest son Ty recalls the internal competitions between he and his brothers and believes that the environment helped bring out the best in him. He fondly recalls the games in the backyard—or even the living room—and cherishes the nonstop soccer culture in and around the house.

“Growing up with brothers who played soccer was so nice,” Ty said. “We were always competing with each other. Things would get very heated. Our dad would run a lot camps and he was very active as a coach in our lives. He didn’t force us to practice. He didn’t put us under any pressure but we loved the soccer camps.”

Of all the Thompsons, Tommy is standing in the brightest spotlight these days. He earned positive reviews with the Earthquakes this season despite the team's many struggles in MLS. He missed the first months of the season with an injury and then was loaned to Sacramento as he regained his fitness.

Thompson was among the most impressive players at a United States U-20 camp in July where he helped his team cruise to victory in the NTC tournament. He also played 23 minutes in last night's dynamic 4-3 win over Russia in the Marbella Tournament.

The youngest Thompson has always been quite ambitious. He graduated high school in three years and left Indiana University after just one year as he pushed to reach the next level. Next year, he wants to be a key part of the Earthquakes' rebuilding process as the club moves into its new stadium.

"I set a high standard for myself and I want to set the bar high so I can achieve these goals but there is a lot of work to be done,” Tommy said. “I’m hoping to become a regular starter and be a guy on the field even when everyone is healthy. I’d also like to get in with the U-20 national team with the World Cup coming in May. There are some exciting things coming up and I am just excited to show everybody what I can do.”

Fans of the Earthquakes are quick to note that Thompson has unique ball control skills and often during warm-ups he shows off his ability to dribble or do tricks. While it looks like complete natural ability, his brothers say that Tommy was a bit of a late bloomer and, at least early on, showed the least interest in soccer among the brothers.

Ty recalls a particular moment in Tommy’s younger days when their father explained to him that his older brothers were overtaking him in terms of foot-skills. From then, he said, it was a completely different story.

“Tanner and I, we were at a little bit of higher level at the younger ages just because Tommy didn’t put the time into it and was kind of disinterested—which was totally fine,” Ty revealed. “My dad was like, ‘Tom it is totally cool that you are not really doing the foot-skills stuff...but Tanner and Tyler, they’re kind of passing you up. They’re developing their skills. If you want to be good, you have to develop your skills.’

Apparently his competitive nature kicked into high gear.

"He then started taking it more seriously," Ty said. "He became one of the best jugglers I’ve ever seen and is just great with tricks. He has a profound skill with that.”

“I really started seeing him come forward in terms of his soccer career at probably the U-12 and U-13 level," Ty added. "You could tell he was standout. He was the ringer on the team. Having that role on the team helped him improve even more. It was a snowball effect. When people are getting you the ball, you’re just improving at an exponential rate. He’s a good player. A lot of things have led to that.”

Looking ahead, expectations will only be heightened for Thompson as he has potentially has a U-20 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics on the horizon. Given his ability to attack with speed out wide, Tommy can play a position that U.S. youth teams have struggled to fill in recent years.

John Stollmeyer was a former teammate of Gregg Thompson at Indiana and was on the 1990 U.S. World Cup team. He frequently attends Indiana games and came away extremely impressed with Tommy Thompson and believes his ceiling is very high.

“Every time he had the ball, Tommy was so dangerous,” Stollmeyer said. “He just had a knack to play a ball on an off-step. He's just difficult to deal with. He's one of those tricky little players. He's for real. He's not soft. He doesn't back off. As a freshman, he did at IU what I expect freshman that can play do.”

This season for the Earthquakes, head coach Mark Watson came away with a nearly identical assessment.

"He's got a good feel for the game in terms of being in spots to get on the ball," Watson said. "He's got a little trick and can get past people. When he still was in high school playing for our reserve team he didn't back down from any confrontation. That's what we liked about him."

Gregg remembers his days representing the U.S. well and is particularly excited at the prospect of having his son follow in his footsteps all the way to Rio de Janeiro.

“It's a little bit of a Deja vu type thing,” Gregg said. “Even though he's a much better player than I ever was and has more skill than I ever had, he's going through a lot of the emotions that I was going through—and some of the doubts here and there. You question yourself a little bit. I'm glad I am able to talk to him about how to handle some of those things.”

Emotionally, however, he believes there is a common bond and is happy he is still able to help even if he is no longer his son's coach.

“Going forward, he has pretty high aspirations,” Gregg continued. “He’s a very hard worker and he’s a humble kid, but confident. I’m very optimistic for his future as far as soccer goes.”

Tommy, for his part, points to his father as an inspiration and a role model.

“I credit all my development to him,” Tommy said. “He was the head coach of every team I’ve been on up until I was in college, basically. One of the awesome things about my dad is that he’s never been one of the dads who is always pushing for his son to be the next big thing. He would always keep it in check with what I wanted to do.”

But growing up in the Thompson household, there was never really any doubt about what Tommy would end up doing for a living. Soccer is in his blood.

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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