The Future: How S2’s signing of 15-year-old Ray Serrano reflects shifting culture for bright young prospects

Ray Serrano S2 2018-04-25

When Ray Serrano inked a professional contract with Seattle Sounders FC 2 on Feb. 14, 2018, he became the youngest signing in club history at just 15 years old. His journey from a local select team in his hometown of Moses Lake, Wash., to the professional ranks is incredibly unique within the American soccer landscape.

Five years ago, a player like Serrano would have likely fallen through the cracks. But as Sounders Academy continues to expand its youth programming, scouting infrastructure and developmental pathway, it’s a story that will become commonplace in the future.

As soon as Serrano could walk, he had a ball at his feet. Growing up in a Mexican-American household, Serrano and his siblings would often settle friendly arguments with games of 1-v-1 soccer in the backyard, where the S2 prospect first honed his creative, unpredictable playing style.

When he was nine, Serrano joined local club Columbia Basin United FC and played up on the U-12 team. He was capable of playing at an even higher level, so his family took turns driving him to Spokane, which is two hours away, twice a week so he could play for the Spokane Shadow.

It was with the Shadow — a youth club affiliate of Sounders FC, meaning the Academy shares resources such as coaching education and training curriculums — that he first caught the eye of Sounders coaches.

The Future: How S2’s signing of 15-year-old Ray Serrano reflects shifting culture for bright young prospects  -

Serrano with the U-17 Academy team | Quinn Width

“From what I heard, they spotted me at a game against Crossfire,” said Serrano. “We played against them and Michael Morris — he’s the coach of the U-19s right now — was at that game. I think I scored one goal because we lost like 7-1, but I played pretty well.”

Impressed by this dynamic No. 10, Morris relayed his scouting report to the rest of the Academy staff, who then traveled to Arizona for the ODP Regional tournament to give him a second look.

“Sometimes when you see a player, you can tell right away that they can play at a higher level,” said Sounders FC Director of Player Development and Academy Director Marc Nicholls. “Within 15 minutes of the first time we saw him in Arizona, it was pretty obvious he needed to play at a higher level. I don’t even think you had to be a soccer coach to see it.”

Nicholls then spoke to Serrano’s parents about Ray entering the Sounders Discovery Program (SDP), which invites the top prospects in the state to train twice a week with Academy coaches using the Sounders curriculum. Serrano impressed the SDP coaches enough to be called back for a second training stint, this time with the U-15s.

“My first impression of Ray was that he had an impact on the training sessions because he was so creative and always moving,” said U-15 Head Coach Sean Henderson. “He was playing up a year or two and he was still doing well. I had high hopes for him even before the season got going.”

After the week-long trial, Serrano was invited to join the Academy full time for the 2016-17 USSDA season. Realizing their son had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pursue his dreams, the Serranos made a tremendous sacrifice. His mom and younger sister moved to Seattle to live with him so he could play for the Sounders.

“I really thank them a lot for moving over here with me because it’s crazy to be the youngest signing in club history,” said Serrano. “My family supported me a lot and I love them so much for doing this.”


The Future: How S2’s signing of 15-year-old Ray Serrano reflects shifting culture for bright young prospects  -

Serrano with Chad Marshall during preseason | Serrano’s Instagram

Serrano quickly earned a starting spot and dazzled the coaches. Recognizing that talent is too rare to stand still, Nicholls drafted him into the U-17 squad for the first round of the Generation adidas Cup. By the end of the season, in which he tallied over 35 goals and 25 assists from 50 appearances across all competitions, he was a full-time starter with the U-17s.

In the current USSDA campaign, Serrano has tallied 24 goals and six assists from just 21 appearances for the U-17s.

“Ray is exciting, creative and he does the unexpected when he’s on the ball,” said U-17 Head Coach Chris Little. “He is relentless in terms of how hard he works. Similar to [Nicolás] Lodeiro with the First Team, he never stops working, he never stops moving.”

Serrano’s star-turn displays in Rave Green have made him a regular for the U.S. U-17 men’s national team, receiving invitations to all three camps of the new cycle. His first start, against the Netherlands at the Nike Friendlies in November 2017, was a special occasion for the entire family.

“That was amazing,” recalled his older brother Miguel. “We’re proud of this country, we’re proud of everything it’s given to us. To see my little brother representing this country…there are just no words for it.”

It was a surreal moment for Miguel, who is 12 years Ray’s senior. Miguel also often recognizes the skill moves Ray pulls off in big games as ones he taught Ray in the backyard growing up.

In recognition of his hard work and rapid progression, he was invited to preseason with the First Team. Though he loved spending time with his roommate, Román Torres, and learning from the likes of Cristian Roldan and Lodeiro, the best part was training alongside Clint Dempsey, a player whose poster still hangs in his bedroom in Moses Lake.

But the biggest highlight of his recent whirlwind of success was his professional debut in S2’s 2-1 home-opening win at Cheney Stadium on March 16, when he came on as a substitute in front of 6,000 fans.

“It was crazy,” recalled Serrano. “My whole family was there and they were supporting me, and when I saw the whole crowd there, I got chills.”

Added Miguel: “We were screaming, we were excited. I had never seen my dad jump up and down like a little kid.”


The Future: How S2’s signing of 15-year-old Ray Serrano reflects shifting culture for bright young prospects  -

Serrano in his S2 debut | Charis Wilson

Throughout the past five years, the Sounders Academy has continually implemented new initiatives aimed to elevate the quality of player identification and development throughout the state. This is what makes Serrano’s signing so symbolic, as he came through all three of the primary pathways: youth club partnerships (Spokane Sounders), player scouting and the Sounders Discovery Program.

“I think Ray’s story is great, but how many more Rays are there that we don’t know about?” asked S2 Assistant Coach Wade Webber. “That’s the thing that drives us because we know there are even more kids out there and we need to find them.

“They might not be playing in the [Regional Club League] First Division, they might be playing in Tacoma in a random adult league as a 15-year-old,” he continued. “But we can still catch them because we have a good network of people identifying talent, and we have good relationships with coaches in communities that are perhaps underserved.”

Serrano’s rapid ascent is emblematic of the shifting culture within the club, one where young players have a clear pathway from the youth system to the First Team. He cites Azriel Gonzalez, who signed with S2 as a 16-year-old in 2017, as an inspiration for his own progression to professional soccer.

“The difference between an Academy kid coming through five years ago and coming through now is night and day,” said Henderson. “There is that possibility of going to S2 and then the First Team. It’s all within their reach, it’s something that’s achievable for them.”

There’s no denying that Serrano’s story is rare and heartwarming, or that he has an incredibly bright future with the club. But through their youth programming and an expansive scouting network, the Academy staff is doing all it can to make sure that players just like him miss an opportunity.

“Ray’s journey is a unique one for sure, but at the same time, these kinds of stories are becoming more of the norm,” said Nicholls. “We’re not talking about a flash in the pan, we’re talking about the systematic scouting and development of young talent.”

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