On April 10, 2021, the University of Michigan men’s soccer program defeated rival Michigan State 1-0 in the Big Ten Tournament. The Wolverines earned a clean sheet led by center back Jackson Ragen, in what would be his penultimate college match.
Nearly two years to the day later, Ragen started for his hometown Seattle Sounders and earned another clean sheet in a 3-0 win over previous Western Conference-leading St. Louis CITY SC.
Ragen’s ascent from four-year college player to bona fide MLS starter has been remarkable and is atypical for young players in today’s modern game. Although he’s still only 24, Ragen is in his first year as a starter and second as an MLS professional. Contrast that to his teammate in defensive midfield, Josh Atencio, who is just 21 and is already a fourth-year pro.
Talent and success, especially in sport, are not always linear, and the progression that Ragen has made since his days in the Sounders Academy is evidence of that.
“He and [current Tacoma Defiance midfielder] Paul Rothrock used to come when they were both college players, and we’d look at both of them,” said Head Coach Brian Schmetzer. “Jackson was this big, gangly kid. Good size, good frame, good passing. [He’s] become polished. Jackson’s path was a little different than most. He had a full four years at Michigan. He played a year at Defiance. Wade Webber did a great job with him. You’re seeing a kid who’s coming into his own with good vision, good passing, good technical ability.”
Ragen burst onto the scene in 2022 largely because of heavy fixture congestion to start the campaign with a Concacaf Champions League title run, and then kept earning minutes throughout the year as the Sounders dealt with injuries and international call-ups. He made 14 starts across 23 MLS matches and cut his teeth as a rookie in the MLS ranks.
This season has been a coming-of-age for Ragen, beginning with his start in the FIFA Club World Cup against Al-Ahly, just 22 months after playing NCAA soccer. He has started all seven matches for the Sounders and, alongside Yeimar, is anchoring the league’s second-best defense. Seattle has conceded just three times so far and pitched four shutouts.
“Our relationship as a unit and as a back four is really good right now,” said Ragen. “We play to our strengths. I’m not as athletic as [Yeimar] is, and I’m better communicating because he doesn't speak as much English. I tell him to go, and he’s super good at winning the ball, and I cover for him. I still step, but we try and do that more based on our strengths.”
One of Ragen’s strengths is his ability to unbalance teams in possession. He’s an underrated passer and is instrumental in Seattle’s ball-heavy approach to attacking this season. He’s sixth among MLS defenders in accurate long balls with 36, and among defenders who have played at least 500 minutes, he’s second in passing percentage at 91%.
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Ragen noted how utilizing his passing has been something that the coaching staff has tried to capitalize on this year. Against pressing teams, specifically, as was the case against St. Louis, Ragen’s ability to pass over and through defenses helps relieve some of that pressure and opens space in midfield.
“I like his attention to detail,” goalkeeper Stefan Frei said of Ragen. “When you talk about breaking lines, sometimes the difference between breaking a line and not breaking it is playing the ball to Nouhou on his left foot vs. his right foot. That’s attention to detail…that’s what makes good pros. I see that out of him every day. He’s got a bright future ahead, I’m really happy to have him on the squad.”
Competition for spots is an important part of any successful team in any sport. Not having a guaranteed starting role fuels spirited trainings and makes everyone better. Ragen knows he’s competing with a deep Sounders center back corps, alongside Yeimar, Xavier Arreaga, AB Cissoko and even Atencio at times.
This internal push to get better has been a blessing for Ragen, who has earned every minute of his playing time this season.
“We had some injuries last year, and that allowed him to play a little bit,” Frei said of Ragen. “I remember distinctly telling him, ‘When some of our senior guys come back, you probably will get pushed back onto the bench.’ That’s just the harsh reality at times. Either you can pout, or you can take that as a challenge. He showed that he has a good head on his shoulders. He took it as a challenge. He’s worked hard…For him to only be only in his first year as a starter, he’s a fantastic player.”
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Added Schmetzer: “There’s still even areas of improvement in his heading. He can do better there. He’s such a big body, but he needs to do better in the air. He’s been a pleasant surprise. It’s not easy to beat out a guy like Xavi, who’s on the Ecuadorian national team.”
While it’s still early, both in the season and in Ragen’s budding career, the returns are promising. He’s in the 90th percent tile among MLS center backs in pass completion percentage and 93% in completed long passes, all while being 94% in percentage of dribblers tackled and 90% in shots blocked defensively.
Ragen and the Sounders look to continue their strong start to the 2023 MLS season with a crucial road match at the rival Portland Timbers on Saturday (7:30 p.m. PT; MLS Season Pass on Apple TV app). Playing in Providence Park is a tough task for any opposing center back, let alone one still coming into his own, but it will be just another stepping stone for Ragen as he continues to make a name for himself both in Seattle and across the league.
“I’ve definitely been working on [communication] this year,” said Ragen. “I’m not the loudest guy off the field, but on the field trying to be more of a leader and take on a leadership role.”