Back in April, Bob Bradley had a decision to make. His team walked off the pitch at halftime in Seattle up a man and with the score level at one apiece. After defeating the Sounders at home by a score of 4-1 in the Club's last match, Bradley's team had a chance to deliver a crucial blow to Western Conference rival all in the span of seven days.
Home or away, LAFC doesn't need an invitation to attack opponents. But holding a numerical advantage for the next 45 minutes, Bradley made the change. Tristan Blackmon was sacrificed in favor of Lee Nguyen as the teams took the field for the second half.
The move brought Blackmon's day to an end at the worst possible time. The defender wasn't injured, and although the change was tactical, players dread being removed before a match is restarted. It's usually never a good sign - the only thing worse is being a substitute that is then subsequently substituted during the run of play.
Worse yet, it was Blackmon's first start and appearance of 2019 for the Black & Gold. After not featuring in the first nine matches of the season, he wouldn't see the pitch again for nearly a month.
It's pretty rare when you can unequivocally say a player is the best ever in the history of their alma mater. But Tristan Blackmon is without a doubt the best soccer player to ever attend University of the Pacific, a small private university located in Stockton, Calif.
And Blackmon may have never played there had it not been for a decision to pass on an international tournament.
"Basically, how it happened was I was actually going to go to Sweden with my club team to play in a tournament. [Olympic Development Progam] was a big thing back then. So I ended up going to ODP instead of this tournament with my club team," Blackmon recounted after an LAFC training session a few weeks back. "Ryan Jorden, who would become my coach at University of the Pacific, was there. He saw me play in a few games there with the ODP team. I think he reached out maybe a week after that. From then on, our relationship was built, and I got a good idea of what he wanted for his team and for me as a player."
Jorden recruited Blackmon to be a part of the first Pacific Tigers men's soccer team in 28 years. For Blackmon, it was the chance to be a part of something from the ground up.
"I’m happy that I ended up going to the school that I did because I was part of the rebirth of the program," Blackmon said.
In four seasons with the Tigers, Blackmon led the team to two NCAA Tournament appearances. The defender was twice named to the West Coast Conference first team and took home WCC Defender of the Year honors in his final season with the team. Blackmon is Top 3 in points, points per game, goals, goals per game, and shots on goal in school history.
Following his senior season, Blackmon attended the MLS combine ahead of the 2018 SuperDraft. At the combine, he impressed another head coach looking to build a team from the ground up.
"When we saw Tristan at the combine, we thought he was an athletic, young defender capable of going forward. He started out in college as an attacker and had been moved into the back," Bob Bradley said of how he viewed Blackmon heading into the draft. "We thought that he had good ability on the ball. He was a good passer. And his defensive instincts were solid and just needed work. We really felt that he was a diamond in the rough that just needed some time and some work."
After selecting João Moutinho from the University of Akron with its first-ever MLS SuperDraft pick, LAFC traded up to select Blackmon with the No. 3 overall pick.
Blackmon was the first player in University of the Pacific history to be selected in the SuperDraft. Once again, he was moving up a level with a team looking to create its own history on the fly.
"There are definitely similarities. Of course, the level is different. But there are definitely parallels," Blackmon said. "You’ve got to get a group of guys together and establish an identity of how you want to play. You tinker with players every year, trying to figure out can this guy fit in the system or does this guy not fit in the system. It’s cool to have done it in a college career and then be able to do the same thing coming into MLS.
"It’s very interesting that I had it pan out that way."
A few weeks after his substitution in the Seattle match, a conversation in a car leaving LAFC training shed some light on Blackmon's situation.
"It’s funny with Tristan because I vividly remember Tyler [Miller] and me in our carpool talking about him being frustrated or things not going his way," Walker Zimmerman said of the conversation. "We both gave him our stories of our rookie year or our second year. I was like, I played seven games my rookie year, maybe eight my second year. I’m sure there were injuries involved but it was frustrating. You put in the work and maybe you don’t see the field. That’s tough."
Zimmerman, Miller, and Blackmon are nearly inseparable off the pitch. The three players all live within close proximity to one another and spend nearly every day together, including carpooling to and from training and matches. As the elder statesman of MLS relative to Miller and Blackmon, Zimmerman is sometimes jokingly referred to as "dad" by the other two. Having seen Blackmon up close over the past two seasons, the LAFC center back watched his teammate improve from his rookie season but knew he needed a spark to really get things rolling.
"It’s funny how quickly things can change. He got a run of games in the summer, people were gone and there were injuries, and he got a chance. That’s all it takes is a chance to prove yourself and show that you can do it," Zimmerman said. "I think his mentality kind of shifted from that conversation to putting in the work on the training field so that if and when he does get called, he would be ready. He started working harder, maybe his focus got a little bit stronger. Now he’s done great in the games he’s played in."
Blackmon's breakthrough came a month after the match in Seattle. Regular right-back Steven Beitashour pulled up with a hamstring injury in a match at FC Dallas, Blackmon was called on to start in his place in the next home match against the Montreal Impact.
It was Blackmon's second start of 2019. And this time, he made certain he'd be needed for the full 90 minutes.
"At a certain point he just had to go for it a little bit more," Bradley said of Blackmon's match against the Impact. "I remember, he came out at halftime against Seattle away, it wasn’t that he had played poorly but we were a man up and we thought that we had to push the game a little bit more. The next time he got his chance, we were really trying to challenge to go for it a little bit more and be more aggressive in the way he tried to make plays. I think he took that lesson in the Seattle game and applied it to everything since."
Against Montreal, Blackmon scored the first MLS goal of his career. He was named Man of the Match in the 4-2 victory and went on to play 90 minutes in the next eight matches across all competitions.
Blackmon's biggest improvements have come as a result of understanding LAFC's system and trusting his natural talents. Where he would have hesitated in the past, Blackmon is now stepping forward into plays without thinking. The result has been his ability to affect matches using his athleticism and his anticipation in important situations. He's also more comfortable on the ball and contributing to LAFC's attack from the fullback position.
In picking up his first MLS assist, Blackmon demonstrates the principles of LAFC's dynamic attack by driving forward with a purposeful run beyond the opponent's backline. Before reaching the byline, Blackmon's composure and presence of mind to cut the ball back across the penalty area leads to a tidy finish from Diego Rossi. It's a play Blackmon admits wouldn't have been possible for him in his rookie season.
"It’s been a process for sure. I think in Year One, I was definitely more hesitant, and I was not necessarily afraid, but I was a rookie and I was trying to do whatever I could to help the team in whatever way," Blackmon said "Whether that means off the bench or just being a secondary player. Just being a good guy in the locker room type of thing. Year Two has been, so far, a good step in the right direction for me just based on aggressiveness and confidence. If you take a game from Year One and Year Two, and you look at the player I’ve become, I think there’s definitely been a big jump."
More comfortable in his own skin and now a trusted member of the squad, Blackmon's contributions have been vital to LAFC's pursuit of history in the 2019 season. As the Black & Gold turn the corner towards the home stretch, the second-year player is primed to repay the faith the Club had in pushing him since his arrival in LA.
"I've always known that the coaching staff and my teammates and everybody in the Club have had confidence because I wouldn't be here if they didn't," Blackmon said. "The fact that they keep giving me opportunities in games and training, they're still giving me pointers about little things here and there, it shows that they care. I feel like if they didn't really care about my progression or me as a player, then maybe they'd stop saying things. It's definitely a confidence-booster when you have the team and the coaching staff behind you. It definitely makes you more excited to go into games.
"I'm excited to keep going and I think the coaching staff is behind not only me but the whole team, so I'm excited for the rest of the year."