It has been quite a journey for defender Tristan Blackmon since LAFC traded up to select him third overall in the 2018 MLS Superdraft, three years later he is in his first-ever U.S. National Team camp now through January 24 in Bradenton, Fla.
The former University of the Pacific Tiger started his MLS career quickly, appearing as a substitute in LAFC’s inaugural match in Seattle. However, throughout much of his rookie season he found himself with few MLS minutes and eventually on loan with USL’s Phoenix Rising FC. While he excelled with the lower-level side, helping them to the 2018 USL Championship match, he was hungry for first-team action.
The 2019 season started with him on loan again to Phoenix, but he was recalled back to the Club in April and earned a start in his first with the team on April 28th, a 1-1 draw at Seattle. He failed to earn another minute in the next four matches as the Club continued to push for League supremacy, but once he entered the starting lineup on May 24, 2019 in a 4-2 win that saw him score his first MLS goal, he has never looked back.
Blackmon seized his opportunity, ultimately appearing in 17 of the Club’s last 20 matches en-route to the 2019 Supporters Shield and a number of League records smashed along the way. The Las Vegas native established himself as a mainstay on the LAFC backline, starting both MLS Cup Playoff matches at the end of the 2019 season, and planning for a potential breakout year in 2020.
Yet amidst the multitude of challenges that 2020 brought, Blackmon continued to push through, ultimately starting 11 of 21 matches because of a hamstring injury. He recovered enough to earn high praise for his play at the end of the season and in the Concacaf Champions League in December, and his clear on-pitch development was rewarded by his first national team call up.
With Blackmon beginning his first U.S. National Team training camp, we caught up with him to discuss last season, his call up, and more. See the full Q&A below.
Before we get into discussing your USMNT call-up, first, I wanted to get your thoughts on last season.
Blackmon: Obviously, there was a lot going on in the world - pandemic and politics-wise, but I think all in all it was a tough year for everyone on the team. We had to manage a lot of things that we wouldn't normally have had to. I think for the most part though, guys stayed pretty engaged. We did the best we could. It was kind of an up and down season, we could see that, but it was an important year for us.
Especially with Champions League, I think that was a very big thing to get into, to be able to play in. Obviously, it came to a bitter end in the final losing to Tigres, but I think just the journey in that tournament, I think a lot of guys ended on a good note. They showed what they could bring to the team, and yeah it leaves a bittersweet taste in your mouth but I think there's a lot of things to grow on and I'm excited looking into next year.
This is a really important moment for you in your career with your first senior national team call up. Talk about what it means for you to get an opportunity to represent your country on the world stage.
Blackmon: It’s a surreal moment. When you're growing up, you always watch USA vs Mexico, World Cup games, you're always supporting your country whenever they're playing. It's an incredible moment, a huge opportunity for me to go and showcase what I can bring to the pitch. I think it'll be a learning experience, but I want to take it to them. I want to show them what I can do, what I bring.
It’s still kind of hitting me, it hasn’t really set in. I haven’t really had time to think of think of it. I just have to stay fit and try to keep that killer mentality I was trying to have in Concacaf at the end of the year. I'm trying to take that into camp and just really be the best I can be. It’s a big accomplishment for me but it's a stepping stone. I want to keep progressing after this and I want to use this as a catalyst to keep getting better in the future.
An interesting element about your call up is that you're the lone newcomer on the current camp squad. This call up is really a testament to your on pitch development. What does it mean for you to get the call up at this point in your career?
Blackmon: I’ve been on a huge journey and learning curve since I got to L.A. coming from college. There’s been ups and there’s been downs, but there’s been a lot of growth for me individually on the field and personally. As I’ve developed, you look for moments when you can showcase yourself at the highest level. There were moments in 2019 where I showed what I could do, breaking into the first team at the second half of the year.
This year, at the beginning of the year with Champions League, coming back and winning against León at home and advancing to the next round. Then just trying to continue growing throughout the year and getting better. Fighting through injuries and ups and downs of you not winning as many games as you should throughout a season, but then ending on a really good note in Champions League. Players always look back at themselves and see what they could have done better, and I could have played and done things differently in Champions League, but I was proud of the way I handled myself. I'm really looking forward to continuing to develop that mentality of just really going for it.
At this point in my career, I’m ready for another test. I'm ready for a big stage. I want to continue developing and the way that you do that playing against world class players and I think I'll be in an environment where that will take place.
You have talked about the players that you're going to be in the mix with and playing against at National Team camp. How does it feel to be included amongst the ranks of some of MLS’ best including your former teammate, 2020 Defender of the Year, Walker Zimmerman?
Blackmon: It’s going to be a cool experience. Obviously, it will be great to be with Walker again after playing with him for a couple of years here in L.A. There's just so much talent on display in these camps and you really get a sense of it once you're in it. So, I'm very much looking forward to getting in the mix and really trying to learn everybody's game and seeing how I can put myself in situations where I can showcase the best of myself as well.
Looking towards the future, what are some of your goals with the US National Team?
Blackmon: This is the first call up of hopefully many. I look forward to developing my relationship with the staff and the players, showing myself and hopefully you keep getting called back into camps and then into games. If you're consistent and you keep showing yourself and keep playing to the best of your ability on your Club teams, I think you set yourself up for getting a good chance to get called back.
That's important, especially at my age. I'm getting to the stage where I need to continue being consistent and I have to show myself every single minute of every single game. So, if you do that, then you're going to keep getting called in. Once you get called in, other people start watching and then the rest is history. I just want to develop, keep becoming the best that I can be on the club level and with the national team
Lastly, what are some of your club goals in 2021?
Blackmon: I think the big one for me is just taking it to the next level. I've learned the League, I know the players and I know what they're capable of. I've become accustomed to the League and I've been tested and now had years to get used to it. There's no excuse anymore. I should be able to play at this level and I think I showed that.
So, I think now it's just a matter of can you really push yourself to take it to the next level? Can you remain consistent? Can you lead your team when they need it? Can you push guys to not only play for 90 minutes but to play for 95 minutes if need be? Can you be that player? I think for me the big thing is, can I really just push myself and take it to that next level next year?