Of all the factors that come into play in a successful career, timing is a critical, though often overlooked, quality. Talent and work ethic are a given, but more subtle factors can also come into play. It can be the day that a pointer from a coach took root. Or a time when a player was seen by the right person.
In his case, the venue was Edwards Stadium in Berkeley, California. It was the spring of 2016 and Blackmon, with his University of the Pacific teammates, were set to play Cal in what was outwardly a run-of-the-mill scrimmage. For most neutrals in attendance, the draw was Cal and U.S. youth international goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann. Except Blackmon and his team had something to prove. Having revived their soccer program in 2014, the Tigers were coming off a brutal 1-15-1 campaign and Blackmon, having spent the majority of his life as a forward, was not only coming off a season in which he scored just two goals, but was trying out a new position as a right-back.
It wasn’t the easiest of sells for then-coach Ryan Jorden, but Blackmon was eventually won over.
“At first, I was kind of rebellious towards the idea,” Blackmon said via phone. “But that spring, I fully committed to doing it. I fully just bought in and I really just wanted to help my team in whatever way I could.”
Blackmon was a revelation that day, powering up and down the right flank while still attending to his defensive duties.
“It looked so right,” said Jorden, now the men’s head coach at UCLA. “[Blackmon’s] natural instincts coming forward were great. His ability to do the defending side of the game was very good. And it was one of the things where you sit there, watching it go on, and you think ‘this is really going to be fantastic for him and us.'”
It proved to be the right positional switch at the right age and from there, Blackmon has been on a steady progression. UOP made the NCAA tournament that year and following his senior season, he was drafted No. 3 overall by LAFC in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. He’s been a consistent contributor for the Black and Gold ever since, even as he toggled between right-back and center-back.
“He continues to grow as a player,” said LAFC manager Bob Bradley. “We saw some very good starting points, [and we] knew that his experience level would require some time. He’s very athletic. And now, the idea that he takes the experiences and continues to be more confident, have a bigger role, those are the things that we’re working on. He’s still capable of playing as a right-back in a four-man back line, playing as a center-back in a four, or playing anywhere across the back, if you play with three. So he’s versatile in those ways, and we believe that there’s still more there.”
The Three Musketeers
After a three-week break, LAFC resumed its league program on Saturday with a 1-1 draw against the Houston Dynamo. The timing allowed some players and staff to reconnect with family to celebrate Father’s Day.
It’s a holiday that usually isn’t near the top of most people’s lists. There are bigger and grander celebrations. But for Blackmon and his father, Peter, the day carries special significance. Tristan’s parents split up when he was 7 and for a four-year period, Peter raised Tristan and his brother Preston on his own. Peter later remarried and had two more children with his wife, Kandice. And while Tristan’s mother, Makaela, remains a part of his life, the bond between Peter and Tristan is particularly strong.
“We called ourselves the Three Musketeers,” Tristan said of the time Peter raised him and his brother as a single parent. “My dad has been by my side the entire time, through the ups and downs, getting kicked when I was little, trying to fight back and build character in a lot of different ways. He’s the role model for me. I’ve learned a lot from him, not just in soccer, but in life, for sure. He’s my best friend.”
Peter recalls how Tristan “wasn’t cooking meals,” but eagerly took on the role of big brother. And his son always made it a point of celebrating Father’s Day with and for his dad.
“Now that I have a little bit of money, I try to go and get some cool things for him,” Tristan said. These days that means getting his dad — an avid Seattle sports fan — memorabilia, be it a Ken Griffey Jr. jersey or one from Shawn Kemp. But even in his youth, Tristan made a point of celebrating that day.
“He was always good about getting out the crayons and drawing a picture,” Peter said. “They know what I like to eat for breakfast, and so they would try to put that together. But Tristan is big on spending time, which is what we as a family consider the ultimate fun, having all six of us in the same place.”
That will be the goal this weekend as Peter and his three other children — Preston, Kingston and Olivia — will be in attendance for Saturday’s game, followed by a get-together the following day.
“He needed some coaxing”
Both father and son laugh about the fact that the first few times Tristan set foot on a soccer field, he had to be bribed. The LAFC defender was just four years old at the time, though, and didn’t prefer the scrums that tend to occur when kids are just starting out in the sport.
“I was scared to play and go out and kick the ball with the kids,” he recalled. “And I just remember my parents always trying to get me out there, trying to give me something to look forward to. So if I would score like a couple goals, maybe they’d take me to go get a toy.”
His father, Peter, recalled how the only reason Tristan was out there was because his son couldn’t play baseball until he was 5 1/2.
“He didn’t warm up to soccer right away,” he said of his oldest son. “He needed some coaxing, but we wanted to get him into something.”
Yet as it does for so many around the globe, Tristan eventually got hooked on soccer, so much so that he eventually gave up baseball — his other favorite sport — to play soccer full time. For some players, it’s the joy of winning that grabs them, or perhaps learning a new skill. For Tristan, it was about the group.
“I was just always fascinated with how a group of different guys, from all different types of backgrounds, whatever you may call it, could come together with a common goal and kind of just forget about everything going on in life, come together, have fun and kick a ball around. I think that’s what it started as. For me as an adolescent, especially, stuff going on where my dad had to take on that [full-time] role, it was kind of an escape for me to go to training.”
The elder Blackmon, an avid baseball fan, soon got over his disappointment over Tristan’s choice, especially as his son rose through the youth ranks in his hometown of Las Vegas. The younger Blackmon achieved this through the rather archaic Olympic Development Program system and the college route, as opposed to U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy, but Tristan’s drive was otherworldly.
Peter, who works in telecommunications, recalls how in high school the two attended a college fair for aspiring collegiate athletes. The presenting colleges went to great lengths to spell out how long the odds were that a high school athlete would get a scholarship, the better to set realistic expectations. Tristan was having none of it.
“I remember him saying, ‘These guys are nuts. I’m going pro. That’s what I want to do,'” Peter said.
That is where Tristan has landed. Bradley feels that Blackmon’s future is at center-back, and points to the career path of Real Madrid legend Sergio Ramos as an example of a player who started out as an outside-back before moving to the middle.
“I think the next step is showing on a on a regular basis more consistency, more competitiveness, more confidence,” Bradley said. “If we can get those things nailed down then I think he’s got great potential. But that’s where we still are challenging him the most.”
Blackmon’s life has been full of obstacles. He has overcome just about every one of them so far, and that bodes well for the future.
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