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SSFC Spotlight: Jalen Neal establishing presence with LA Galaxy

The teenager recently made his senior international debut.

Colombia v United States Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

When the United States Men’s National Team convened for January camp, there were a few inexperienced players and surprise inclusions. One of the more interesting names was Jalen Neal, who made his debut in the 2-1 loss to Serbia. The 19-year-old LA Galaxy center back achieved a rare feat, competing as a senior international before appearing in a first division league. He is considered one of the program’s top young defensive prospects and has quickly become a starter in Major League Soccer.

Born in Lakewood, California, Neal competed with FC Long Beach and Galaxy South Bay, playing up several age levels while demonstrating a high soccer IQ, before joining the LA Galaxy academy in 2016. Three years later, he began appearing with the club’s reserves in the USL Championship, featuring in 13 total matches. The center back scored a goal in the first round of the playoffs, a 4-1 loss to Reno FC. Off the field, the team named him Humanitarian of the Year for his community service.

In January of 2021, Neal signed a first-team contract with the Galaxy, eschewing a commitment to UC Irvine. “Jalen is a talented defender who has shown his capability at the professional level last season with LA Galaxy II,” said former General Manager Dennis te Kloese. “We are excited that he will become another player on our first-team roster that has come through our developmental system. We look forward to Jalen continuing to learn and grow with our club.”

He remained with the reserves for the entire 2021 season, appearing in 14 matches, scoring one goal, and earning Team of the Week honors from the league. Last year began in promising fashion, as Neal was on the bench for the MLS season opener against New York City FC. However, most of his time was spent at the reserve level, playing in 21 USL Championship matches and being named the team’s Defender of the Year award. His senior debut came in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, followed by another appearance in the Leagues Cup Showcase against Chivas.

Prior to 2023, Neal was at an interesting spot in his career, described as “one of the most first-team ready young centre-backs in MLS,” with manager Greg Vanney expressing the need to “take a step forward and provide depth and growth.” He appeared as a substitute in the season opener before taking a starter role for the next four matches, a run that included three draws and two shutouts. His first top-division goal came in a recent 2-1 loss to the Seattle Sounders. The teenage defender considers starting for his hometown club to be a “dream come true,” although Europe may come calling if his ascendancy continues at this rapid rate.

“I don’t know if I can keep saying as many good things about the kid,” Vanney said after Neal’s first start. “We’ve always been super high on his talent and his ability. Tonight, he showed it a little bit [of a] different side, which is just the grittiness defensively and making some plays in the box by doing some of that side. One of the greatest qualities I think he has is his capacity on the ball and tonight you don’t see a ton of that just because we weren’t great on the ball. But he showed something different, which is again, that defensive side and his game reading and winning some duels and making some great defensive plays.”

At the international level, Neal has received several call-ups for various United States youth sides, a member of the impressive U-16 squad that won the 2019 Nike Friendlies. He started and went the distance in five matches at the 2022 CONCACAF U-20 Championship, scoring in the Round of 16 victory over Nicaragua and playing in the final. His performance at the competition – including five shutouts and a 94% pass completion rate – earned Best XI honors, with the teenager expected to be an inclusion on the roster for the upcoming U-20 World Cup. His start in the January camp opener against Serbia was followed by a second cap in succeeding friendly, appearing for 21 minutes in the scoreless draw with Colombia. The experience provided the chance to learn from veterans, soaking up “little professionalism tips [and] small things about taking care of [the] body and [the] mind.”

Possessing ideal height for the position at 6’3”, Neal is traditionally a right-side center back who can also line up in the fullback role. He wins the majority of his aerial duels and is a successful dribbler, enjoying having the ball at his feet and playing out of the back with short passes. Observers describe him as “rangy with quality passing range and maturity for his age,” noting a “really calm, cool demeanor” while displaying high quality in possession.

“Jalen is a very well-rounded center-back prospect,” writes Marcus Chairez for Chasing a Cup prior to the 2023 season. “He has pretty good size, good mobility, he is aggressive, he has pretty good instincts and awareness and he is above average as a passer. I think the biggest thing keeping Jalen from getting a shot with [the] LA Galaxy is his strength and projection to be able to handle grown men attackers consistently... He has shown growth in this area in USL where he does face grown men, but further filling out his frame will definitely help his case for MLS minutes.”

The annual January camp serves as the entry for many players into the senior international level, taking part in a more experiential but still intense environment under the watchful eye of management. Neal receiving a call-up was surprising but not unexpected considering his high potential. He was able to use his experience with the USMNT as a springboard into earning a starting spot with the Galaxy and should continue to develop this season, perhaps emerging from the upcoming U-20 World Cup as a future star and top transfer target.