Saying goodbye was tougher than Luca de la Torre expected. The 22-year-old midfielder had spent the past seven years with Fulham as they bounced between the Premier League and the second-tier Championship. He started out in the team's academy as a 15-year-old and graduated to the first team, but with playing time scarce, De la Torre decided it was time to leave, securing a move to Dutch top-flight side Heracles Almelo.
When a player spends that much time in one place, the roots run deep, and those attachments extend to players and staff as well.
"It was it was an emotional meeting. I didn't think it was going to be that hard," the soft-spoken De la Torre told ESPN via telephone. "The last day was kind of tough for me because I've been playing with some of those guys for five or six years. And I think they were all happy for me because they all thought it was a good move. We've been speaking about it for a while leading up to it. I don't really see myself as like a super emotional guy. It kind of sneaks up on you."
Despite his lack of playing time -- De la Torre made just 14 league and cup appearances with the first team during his time at Craven Cottage -- he will take away some indelible memories. There were the two promotions to the Premier League, his first professional goal against Millwall in the League Cup, as well as making the game-day roster when Fulham was in the Premier League.
"I kept that match shirt with the Premier League badge on it. That was special," he said.
Yet De la Torre was ready for a move. He's at a point in his career where it's no longer enough to simply train with talented players. With Fulham in a position where it was either chasing promotion or trying to avoid the drop in the Premier League, getting minutes as a young attacking player was going to be difficult. If he's to advance, he needs to get on the field, although he has no regrets about his time with the London club.
"I still learned so much there," he said. "It's going to be a big positive for me going forward in my career."
The need for playing time had been on De la Torre's mind for a while. Injuries scuttled some previous attempts to be transferred or go out on loan. He didn't want to go just anywhere, either.
"It was also about finding the right place and the right next step," he said. "That's why I'm really happy that I had this opportunity now. Especially with everything going on with the coronavirus and stuff, it's a really uncertain time for a lot of players and so I'm really happy with this move."
The coronavirus pandemic has impacted players in all manner of ways, although De la Torre has a unique window into the fight against it. His mother, Anne Bang, is the director of stem cell biology at the Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics, part of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, California. His father, Juan de la Torre, is a professor in the department of immunology and microbiology at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. Luca last saw his parents a year ago, but he has been taking in their advice all along.
"It's been great being able to speak to them, obviously, because this is their field and they know a lot about viruses," he said. "It's good to have them tell me what to do and what to worry about. And then they're also working extremely hard. My dad is working directly with the virus, and he's working hard every day."
Heracles should provide De la Torre with a relatively stable platform. The club has been in the Eredivisie for the past 15 seasons and even qualified for the Europa League in 2016-17. De la Torre is a versatile attacking player who can play on either wing or in a more central role, so the attack-minded ethos of the league should give him an opportunity to showcase his skills. The club is also managed by Frank Wormuth, who spent a decade as manager of Germany's U20 team, so De la Torre will be under the tutelage of a coach with vast experience in managing young players.
"The philosophy of the club lines up with the philosophy of the coach," De la Torre said. "They develop players, give young players opportunities, so it's definitely a great place to be."
A veteran of two youth World Cups, the San Diego native still retains hopes of representing the U.S. at the Olympics, which have been delayed a year because of the pandemic. It's perhaps telling the extent to which De la Torre has fallen off the radar that he didn't speak with U.S. men's national team manager Gregg Berhalter or U.S U23 manager Jason Kreis about his move. But De la Torre knows that the best way to fight his way into Kreis' plans is to get minutes on the field, and the U.S. coach told ESPN that any player getting regular playing time in a first-division league will be considered.
With the goodbyes completed, it's time for De la Torre to settle in to his new home.
"The season starts mid-September, so at the moment I'm just training every day and just kind of getting my feet underneath me," he said. "We're just kind of taking it day by day."