TUKWILA, Wash. – When the Seattle Sounders’ U-17 Academy side blew out Atlanta United 5-1 to claim the U.S. Soccer Development Academy National Championship for their age group on Tuesday, it was far from the first time they had posted a one-sided result.
In fact, Tuesday’s championship-clinching romp was really just a continuation of what they have been doing all year. Following an absurdly dominant regular season that saw them go 27-3-3 with a +81 goal differential, Seattle’s U-17s were never really challenged during a playoff run that saw them coast to the championship while posting a +21 goal differential.
Ray Serrano's brace against Atlanta United helped propel the U-17s to the club's first-ever national title | Nick Smith
They made it look easy. In reality, though, it’s part of what Sounders General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey says has been a long-term and meticulously calculated project to cultivate the club’s next generation of MLS talent.
“To win in the fashion that we did, win every playoff game in the fashion we did, [I] couldn’t be prouder of the team,” Lagerwey told reporters on Wednesday at Starfire Sports Complex. “It’s a great kind of flagpost for us. Three years ago we started investing in youth development. We said this is going to be a cornerstone of our franchise. It’s going to be a foundation of what we’re going to do. And we did it.”
In a league like MLS where the roster rules can be tricky to navigate and parity often reigns, establishing a youth development system that can generate future First Team talent is critical. In the years to come, it might just be the biggest workaround to the budget constraints general managers are faced with when constructing MLS rosters.
“Just to use round numbers, a TAM player in our league is worth about half a million bucks,” Lagerwey explained. “So, if you can get Academy players coming in and contributing to your First Team, it’s worth about half a million dollars a player. And that’s every season. That’s money you don’t have to go spend on another player, that you can use on a player that’s in your organization. So, that’s a huge benefit competitively.”
While Lagerwey said he still expects it to be a few years before anyone on the squad will be ready to make a First Team impact, he also considers this season’s run a sign that the seeds are planted.
A big reason for this season’s dominance, he said, is the chemistry the players have developed and the degree to which they’ve bought into the fluid, attack-oriented style of play implemented by Head Coach Chris Little and Academy Director Marc Nicholls.
“In terms of forming an identity and a style of play for the club, all of these kids are getting taught in the same system, with the same style of play,” Lagerwey said. “And you can see it. When they move players off the bench into the game, everybody knows where everybody is. The ball moves in the same patterns up and down the field. They have the same way of playing.
“They have the same player profiles and as they grow and we develop them, we’ll be able to push that stuff up into the First Team,” he added. “And those kids now, when they came up, are going to be much more prepared than we’ve had with kids in the past without a system. So there are just multiple layers of benefits to how we do it.”
The Sounders have had success with Homegrown players in the past, most notably with striker Jordan Morris and defender DeAndre Yedlin. But Lagerwey says the hope is to expand on that by generating First Team talent in groups as opposed to individual cases.
Academy standouts from this year’s squad such as Azriel Gonzalez, Marlon Vargas, Ray Serrano and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez hope to be a part of that group, and have all played with USL outfit S2. Whether they can translate their dominance on the Academy stage to the USL, Lagerwey said, is the next step to keep an eye on in their development.
“This is step one,” Lagerwey said. “Step two now is to take these kids and incorporate them into S2 and the USL level. And step three will be integrating them into the First Team. We are still in the very beginning of this."