San Jose Earthquakes’ Tommy Thompson leaves family to pursue the dream
It’s a school night, but 18-year-old Tommy Thompson has no homework. There is no family calling Thompson to the dinner table. He sits on a disheveled bed, clichéd flower paintings adorning the walls. Though he has been there for three weeks, the television menu reads “Welcome to Homewood Suites.”
The Homewood Suites in San Jose has been Thompson’s home since he left Indiana University to begin playing for the San Jose Earthquakes. At 18, Thompson, a 5-foot-7 forward, is not only the youngest player on the Earthquakes roster, but also the club’s first ever homegrown signing.
Major League Soccer’s homegrown player rule, established in 2008, allows teams to sign local players who ascend through the ranks of their development academies, to first team rosters. The Homegrown Player program, which has resulted in more than 75 signings in MLS, “motivates clubs to invest and sign local players,” said Earthquakes President David Kaval. “It has been very effective at creating opportunities for young American players.” San Jose was the last MLS franchise to sign a homegrown player.
But Thompson’s decision to leave school early to sign with the Earthquakes was not easy.
Thompson was raised with two older brothers, Tyler and Tanner, and younger sister, Tatum, in Loomis, Calif., in Placer County. Growing up, soccer brought the family together.
“Soccer kept our family pretty close. With two brothers, all of us just a year apart from each other, it bonded us together,” Thompson said.
Starting at age four, Thompson learned the game from his father, Gregg. In his own playing days, Gregg scored the winning free kick against Duke in 1982 that earned Indiana University its first soccer national championship. He also played for the U.S. in the 1984 Summer Olympics.
One of the first lessons Thompson learned from his father was competitiveness — the drive to win. But even Thompson admits this competitive spirit sometimes got out of hand. At 10, he joined 11-year-old Tanner’s team, coached by their father.
“Tanner and I had a competitive relationship,” Thompson said. “At practice my dad would always have to separate us and sometimes he would even kick us out of practice because we would get too heated.”
By ages 16 and 17, the Thompson brothers had risen through the ranks of their local Sacramento club, the California Development Academy. With Tommy playing forward and Tanner supplying the assists from central midfield, they developed a special chemistry and connection on the field.
Then, one day, in August of 2012, their CDA team faced the Earthquakes’ youth academy. Due to scheduling conflicts, the brothers arrived at halftime, but a half was all Earthquakes’ technical director Chris Leach needed to realize the talent and potential of the duo.
“He (Chris Leach) approached me right after the game,” Thompson said. “I didn’t even know who he was at first. He introduced himself and was real complimentary on how I played. Then he invited me to come train with the first team.”
Thompson trained with the Earthquakes’ first team and traveled with the development academy. “I really took a liking to the club and felt a connection right away.” The homegrown link, the connection to a club’s youth system that would allow him to sign professionally at any time, was sealed.
But what Thompson was thinking about was how to continue playing with Tanner. “Tanner and I always planned to go to college together,” Thompson said.
“By the end of sophomore year, we knew we were going to go together wherever it was,” Tanner recalled.
That plan became a reality when Indiana University, their father’s alma mater, saw Tommy and Tanner link up at a tournament in Dallas.
“Indiana recruited us almost as a package deal,” said Thompson. “We committed together. I was a [high school] sophomore and Tanner was a junior.”
The excitement of teaming up for Indiana University led both Thompson brothers to leave high school early. Tanner graduated a half year early and convinced his younger brother to graduate a full year early.
“The idea was to play with each other as much as possible and as soon as possible,” said Thompson, who led his Indiana team with five goals and three assists in 16 games, and was named Big-10 Conference Freshman of the Year. “It was a little bit of a scare for my parents. They didn’t want me to rush through life. But they saw how much I wanted to team up with Tanner.”
The connection between the Thompson brothers was on display during the 2013-2014 season for the Hoosiers. In a game on Oct. 11 at Wisconsin, Thompson scored two goals off assists from his older brother.
“Tanner got the ball at center midfield and I made the looping run that I always did growing up with him,” he said. “I didn’t even have to look back. I knew the ball was coming. He played the ball he’d played a million times before. I was through and put it away.”
Indiana’s national tournament run ended in the first round at Akron. When the final whistle blew in that 3-2 loss, Thompson would not have guessed it would be his last game playing with Tanner in the red and white. “I had no idea that I would be leaving,” Thompson said.
After the season, Thompson got the call from the Earthquakes. They wanted to sign him as their first homegrown player in history after just one semester of college. But that would mean leaving Tanner — his brother, his teammate and the one he promised to play with as long as possible.
“Tanner and I got closer than we had ever been before at IU. We lived together and played together,” Thompson said. “That’s what made the decision difficult.”
The whole family weighed the pros and cons: risk of injury, personal development and how it would be socially as a teenage professional soccer player surrounded by grown men with families.
“Tanner knew this was a huge opportunity. He didn’t hesitate to encourage me to make my dream a reality,” Thompson said.
“We always planned on playing together,” Tanner said. “But once he got the offer, I realized he had to go. We both knew that we would never hold each other back.”
After weeks of negotiation, the deal was done. Thompson was a professional soccer player, the Earthquakes’ first homegrown signing.
It remains to be seen how Thompson will fit into the Earthquakes’ lineup this season. As a 5-foot-7 forward, Thompson breaks the mold of San Jose’s tall, aerially dominate forward line. “Thompson is a technically sound, versatile attacking player,” Earthquakes President David Kaval said. He is quick, creative on the dribble and makes intelligent attacking runs. Currently making his way back from injury, Thompson hopes to make an impact in 2014.
Tanner and Thompson still talk all the time. However, now they aren’t separated by a couch in their apartment, but by 2,200 miles, from the limestone buildings of Indiana University to a disheveled white bed at San Jose’s Homewood Suites.