The 2022 season taught Seattle Sounders midfielder Danny Leyva a valuable lesson in perseverance.
After bursting onto the scene in 2019 as an exciting 16-year-old prospect, Leyva saw his progress cut short by untimely injuries the following year. He bounced back with a solid season in 2021, which included posting career highs in starts (eight), appearances (24) and minutes played (861).
At the start of the 2022 season, a quad strain suffered toward the end of preseason threatened to once again halt Leyva’s forward momentum.
“I think I learned this year about overcoming difficulties,” Leyva told reporters at Starfire Sports this week. “With the injury early on, it’s tough being away from the team and not being able to be involved with the team. That taught me to be resilient and always keep fighting, no matter what.”
When Leyva finally returned from injury, fellow Sounders Academy alum Obed Vargas had cemented his place as a consistent contributor in midfield and offseason Designated Player-signing Albert Rusnák had shifted into a box-to-box central midfield role. Leyva found himself competing for minutes with those two, plus 2021 MLS MVP finalist João Paulo, USMNT mainstay Cristian Roldan and fellow Homegrown Player Josh Atencio.
Then in August, a combination of injuries and international absences saw Leyva thrust into a starting role. The 19-year-old seized the opportunity with a slew of impressive performances, providing a solid two-way presence in central midfield as his quality on the ball helped unlock the players around him. Leyva finished the year with 12 starts and 19 appearances overall in MLS.
“I was able to get the opportunities to prove myself and show what I’m about,” he said. “I’m really happy there. But there’s always something to improve, especially individually.”
Leyva’s proficiency in possession has never been in doubt. An intelligent and highly technical midfielder, he dictates the tempo of the match with his range of passing and soccer IQ. But towards the end of this season, he showcased a vastly improved defensive skillset coupled with an increase in his physicality to meet the athletic demands of MLS.
“Starting off the year, the physical side was a big improvement I was trying to work focus on, especially being faster and stronger to win a lot of those interceptions and duels,” said Leyva. “I think that’s one area where I improved… and can continue to improve on that. And just focusing on playing forward and finding our crucial players and to give them more freedom to create.”
The major difference in 2022 has been Leyva’s transformation from an exciting prospect into a a player capable of consistently contributing in MLS. Despite finishing the season with just 952 minutes played, Leyva was eighth on the team in key passes, seventh in tackles and ninth in interceptions.
According to FBref.com, some of Leyva’s per-90 metrics put him in elite company among MLS central midfielders. He finished the campaign in the 90th percentile for passes completed, 95th percentile for passes into the final third and 86th percentile for progressive passes. In terms of his defending, Leyva was in the 85th percentile for interceptions and 95th percentile for ball recoveries.
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“For me, it’s about being consistent. Not just in certain areas on the field, but every area both on the defensive side and the attacking side,” said Leyva. “I think being able to improve the physical side, I can be ready to compete and last 90 minutes consistently. There’s always something I can improve.”
Leyva plans on using this offseason to continue working on his strength, speed and physicality. With João Paulo and Vargas slated to return from injury next year, he’s looking forward to using that increased competition for minutes to further fuel his development.
“I think it’s exciting because the competition always pushes you to the limits, no matter who is on the field,” added Leyva. “We’re all fighting for the same spot and obviously we’re all friends and we get along really well...
“We always want the best for each other, and that healthy competition pushes us to keep improving as individuals. That just gives the best opportunity to win for the team because whoever is on the field is going to want to prove themselves and win that position.”