When João Paulo, arguably the Seattle Sounders’ most influential player, was experiencing hamstring tightness late during the week, the decision for Head Coach Brian Schmetzer to rest him was a surprisingly easy one.
Given the struggles that the Sounders faced last season without their two-way midfield ace, there would likely be some hesitancies over whether to push him this early into the season. But Schmetzer and the coaching staff felt confident enough in 21-year-old Homegrown Player Josh Atencio to hold down the center of the park, and he delivered in a massive way.
Atencio, a Bellevue, Wash., native now in his fourth MLS season, scored the first goal of his MLS career in spectacular fashion on Saturday, the opener in a well-earned 3-0 win over expansion side St. Louis CITY SC at Lumen Field.
“For him to really feel at home there [in the middle of the field] is a huge sign for us,” goalkeeper Stefan Frei said of Atencio. “There’s some big shoes for him to fill as well with João not on the pitch today. Very happy for him. The depth is what is going to push everybody to get better in training, to want to get on the pitch, and ultimately that’s going to help the team. His goal was the first of many to come.”
Added Schmetzer: “Josh took total advantage of that opportunity…In the second half, the kid certainly turned it around and had one hell of a half. I don’t usually do what I did for younger players, subbing him off to let the crowd applaud, but I did because of the quality of that goal. That goal should be [MLS] Goal of the Week, for sure.”
Atencio’s stellar play against CITY extended far beyond his 65th-minute golazo. He had an 81 percent passing completion rate, led the Sounders in duels with 22 and was second on the team in tackles with three, all while helping keep Seattle’s fourth clean sheet in seven matches to start the season. The Sounders have allowed just three goals, tied for second in MLS, and Atencio’s play on both sides of the ball on Saturday had a huge part in that.
“I just go out there and try to play my game,” said Atencio. “There are definitely things over the last few years that I try to incorporate into my game that JP does, he’s a special player and so talented and so many things that he does well that I can learn from, but when I go into a game, I’m not trying to be a JP decoy. I’m trying to play my game.”
Atencio is one of several Homegrown options that Schmetzer has in central midfield, joining Danny Leyva and Obed Vargas as depth pieces who are becoming more and more a regular part of First Team action while making significant and tangible contributions. Atencio proved yet again that he can be a reliable part of this Seattle side that is first in the Western Conference with 16 points and owns a league-best goal differential of plus-12.
“They all want to play, but they all understand that the team comes first,” said Schmetzer. “When Josh is playing well, he’s going to continue to get opportunities.
“That group is fully committed to each and every player trying to do whatever they can do to help drive the performance of the team,” he continued. “That’s a very distinct calling card of this group.”
The Sounders look to continue their torrid start to the MLS season with their first of three contests against the rival Portland Timbers next Saturday (7:30 p.m. PT; MLS Season Pass on Apple TV app). Seattle heads to Providence Park looking for its third away win of the year, which would match its total in all of 2022.
If João Paulo, who Schmetzer said could have played against CITY but was kept out for precautionary measures, can’t go next weekend in Portland, Schmetzer knows he has a more than capable contributor in Atencio, even if his wonderstrike caught even himself by surprise.
“I definitely blacked out a little bit there,” said Atencio. “It took Jordan [Morris] celebrating and coming over to hug me for me to realize it went in.”