The secret is out: Galaxy's Jalen Neal ready to contribute to U.S. national team
When Jalen Neal got the news he would be called into his first training camp with the men’s national soccer team, he was told to keep quiet until the roster was announced.
That wasn’t a problem, he said.
“I told my close family and stuff,” he said. “But otherwise, no. I’m pretty good with private information.”
For his mother Sarah, however, the secrecy was very much a problem.
“That was really ...” she began. “It was hard.”
Hard because the national team call-up was as much a reward for the mother as it was for her son, a 19-year-old defender with the Galaxy. A reward for the countless hours Sarah Neal, a single soccer mom, spent driving her son to and from practices and tournaments. A reward for the weekends and vacations, the late nights and early mornings that she devoted to soccer.
“Jalen and I spent so much time in the car together, eating dinners and doing homework. It just seems so draining,” she said. “But it was absolutely worth it.”
Neal will get a chance for his first cap with the national team Wednesday when the U.S. faces Serbia at BMO Stadium in its first game of the 2026 World Cup cycle. The U.S. will close its week-long January camp Saturday by facing Colombia at Dignity Health Sports Park.
But Neal said the games are just a bonus.
“The amount of playing time I get doesn’t really get to me,” he said. “What I can get out of the trainings and just being around all these guys that I’ve met that have so much more experience than me — just, you know, feeding off them — they can be a huge benefit for my career.
“You just learn little professionalism tips, small things about taking care of your body, your mind. As a young guy, you see what these older guys are going through off the field. And it makes you realize how many responsibilities I have in the future. You can only focus on soccer right now.”
There are other benefits to a first-team call-up, which Neal was only too happy to share, standing up during a Zoom call to model a blue Nike hoodie and a pair of black sweatpants, part of the swag package he received when camp opened last weekend.
“The perks that come with the men’s team are a little different,” he said.
Neal played his first game in a Long Beach-area league when he was 3 years old. At 5, he was playing with kids three years older and his soccer IQ was off the charts since he already understood how to play the ball back to the keeper to build an attack. His teammates’ parents would insist he was going the wrong way but in fact Neal’s soccer fundamentals were sounder than theirs before he started grade school.
Neal joined the Galaxy’s academy at 15 and played 48 games for the team’s USL Championship affiliate before making his first-team debut in May in a U.S. Open Cup match. He also helped the U.S. qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics, anchoring a defense that gave up just two goals in seven games in winning the CONCACAF U-20 Championship last summer. That performance earned him a selection to the all-tournament team.
It also convinced coach Greg Vanney that Neal is ready to take on a much bigger role with the Galaxy this season.
“This is going to be the year that Jalen Neal needs to take a step forward and provide us with some depth and growth,” he said. “Jalen is ready to start to step into the first-team environment.”
Neal has been immersed in an athletic environment his whole life. Older brother Mark, 24, is a semipro soccer player and his younger brother and sister play basketball and soccer — with their mother dutifully toting them to and from practices and games.
“My two little ones, they have grown up on the soccer field, literally [since] coming home from the hospital,” Sarah said.
They’ll be together as a family at another soccer field Wednesday when the Neals travel to BMO Stadium. Whether Jalen plays or not won’t dampen the excitement.
“Just seeing him in warmups is enough for me,” Sarah said. “I’ll be there crying.”
There is one issue though.
“We got tickets, but we didn’t get parking,” she said. “The game, I’m not even nervous about [it]. I’m more nervous about parking.”
Soccer moms. They think of everything.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.