During the Annual Business Meeting on Tuesday, Seattle Sounders FC General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey discussed the evolution of the Sounders FC 2 project in Tacoma.
According to Lagerwey, the Sounders have completed Phase One, was was building a robust Academy that can regularly churn out elite prospects. In 2019, Phase Two will commence in full force.
“Phase Two is: Can we work with our partner, the Rainiers, to really establish a presence in Tacoma for that team, and put those kids in a position to succeed?” posited Lagerwey. “You’re going to see us a sign a little bit more of an expanded squad with S2. We want to solidify that training group.”
Lagerwey’s note about solidifying the training group is critical. Throughout the 2018 season, many of the top prospects were unable to train with S2 on a day-in, day-out basis, as they were either with the Academy or their respective youth national teams. A consistent run in a professional environment, aided by the club’s education initiative, will help ease the transition and accelerate development.
Heading into the 2019 season, nine players on the roster signed directly with the USL side from the Academy, including seven from the national-championship winning U-17 team. That core is an average age of 16.8 years old.
“Our goal next year is show that we’re not just young and can play well, but that we’re young and can get results,” said 17-year-old S2 winger Azriel Gonzalez, who bagged three goals and three assists in just 1,088 USL minutes. “Our goal is to make playoffs and get good results. Yeah, we’re young, but I don’t think that’s an excuse anymore. We have enough quality to get results and win games.”
As the sinew connecting the Academy and the First Team, the soon-to-be-renamed S2’s primary purpose is to prepare talented youth prospects for the jump to MLS. With an amalgam of First Team players needing minutes, S2-signed players and Academy standouts, S2 rarely fielded a consistent lineup as the team struggled for results.
Yes, the team took their lumps at times. But those valuable lessons learned paid dividends toward the end of the campaign. As the youngsters got a continuous run in the team, they began to show flashes of their exciting futures in the professional game.
“Azriel obviously did well in the last few games, and now that he’s more settled in this environment, we’ve started to see his progress and ability,” said Sounders FC Director of Player Development Marc Nicholls. “He’s always had that potential to score and create, and so it was great to see him do that. Marlon [Vargas] showed flashes of his ability as well, which everyone could see.
“These guys are still young, but they have to find a way to be more consistent, impactful and to take their chances. I think over time they will do that.”
It’s worth noting that this is the first wave of players to come through the system that has benefitted from increased scouting, programming and player development initiatives, as evidenced by their dominant 5-1 win over Atlanta United in the USSDA final and significant youth national team involvement.
“I think the guys definitely have enough quality to [replicate that success] at the highest level,” said Gonzalez. “We did that with the U-17s and we won the national championship. Why can’t we do that at the USL level? I think the guys are good enough. We have energy, we’re motivated, and we’re hungry.”
All the young Sounders who debuted toward the end of the campaign demonstrated that they have the requisite ability to compete at the USL level despite being their ages. Midfielder Josh Atencio, 16, scored a wonderful goal on his debut and completed 86.7 percent of his passes. At 15 years old, Danny Leyva became the youngest player in club history to make a professional appearance, playing 90 minutes on the road against San Antonio FC shortly before signing a contract.
Attacking midfielder Danny Robles, 16, is one of ten Sounders Academy alums under contract with S2 for the 2019 season | Charis Wilson
Head Coach John Hutchinson remarked that Danny Robles’ debut against Tulsa Roughnecks was the best he’s ever seen from a youth team player, while his teammate Alec Diaz closed the campaign with two goals and two assists from just five appearances.
“Once you get to that point where you’re consistently getting minutes, it becomes a lot easier to take the chances when they come,” said S2 Assistant Coach Wade Webber. “That’s sort of where we see the step up for these guys.”
Many of these young prospects on S2 came through the Academy together. As Lagerwey noted during the ABM, they’re probably two years away from contributing to the First Team. But in the meantime, this wave of Academy alums is ready to make a name for themselves in the USL.