Seattle Sounders FC 2 kicks off the 2018 USL season, the first at its new home of Cheney Stadium, with a Cascadia clash against Portland Timbers 2. Sporting a roster filled with promising prospects and a few familiar faces, S2 will look to start their inaugural season in Tacoma with a big win over their bitter rivals.
The calculus has changed for S2 in recent seasons, but as the side enters this new era, the club hopes to use the electric crowds at Cheney to help develop some of the brightest talents in the pipeline.
“S2 continues to evolve,” said Sounders FC 2 Director of Player Development and Academy Director Marc Nicholls. “This year we’re excited to have a new coach [in John Hutchinson] who believes in young players and is very excited about the potential of the players coming through the club. The way that we’re approaching S2 is very much with one eye on the future.”
In recent years, the focus of S2 has shifted towards a model of player development, integrating the club’s youth system and producing players for the First Team.
Last season, S2 had signed just two players during the offseason. But this year, the squad began preseason boasting a roster that featured nine returning players, and further spruced things up by signing the likes of Akron star Nick Hinds, Nigeria U-20 international Ibrahim Usman and 15-year-old Sounders Academy prospect Ray Serrano (pictured below). With more roster consistency ahead of the new campaign, the staff was able to implement a rigorous training regimen, focusing more on developing the team’s identity so they can hit the ground running.
Though there’s been plenty of change for the squad, including the coaching staff and home stadium, the commitment to preparing young talent for MLS competition remains a core mandate.
“Last year we had to spend preseason signing a roster, so this year we came in with a healthier number,” said S2 Assistant Coach Wade Webber. “We’ve added some players during this process and we feel like we’re better prepared. Our whole responsibility is to develop players for the First Team, but we also want to put on a good show for all of the fans at Cheney Stadium.”
According to Nicholls, the responsibility of entertaining the boisterous crowds in Tacoma will be crucial for the development of the exciting, hyper-talented players on the roster.
“There’s obviously additional pressure and expectation,” he said. “We think pushing players out of their comfort zone is very healthy for development, so if it’s channeled correctly, that can make someone’s career. They can become a fan favorite. A crowd like that can be the making of a player or a team and can help them achieve things they never thought possible.”
While the roster and identity of S2 continues to trend toward youth, they’ll also rely upon some veteran savvy within the squad this season. Guys like David Olsen, Francisco Narbon, Sam Rogers and team captain Ray Saari amassed a wealth of professional experience in 2017, so they’re now in a position to mentor the young guys and Academy prospects.
David Estrada, who signed with the team on Wednesday and will employ a dual role of helping coach the Academy, brings with him a degree of wisdom that can only be achieved by competing at the top level for nearly a decade.
“Some of these kids want to get eventually to the First Team,” said Estrada during S2's Media Day at Cheney Stadium. “So it’s a little bit of seeing myself in them, and trying to tell them how they can improve on and off the field. I definitely relish at the opportunity of being more of a veteran presence on this team.”
For Saari, who thrived with S2 as a rookie in 2017, the opportunity to parlay stellar performances for the second team into a First Team contract has him excited ahead of the 2018 season.
“I think there’s a lot of things I want to accomplish this year with S2,” said Saari. “Personally, I have goals of making it to the First Team.
“I think I need to approach my role as team captain with a lot of maturity, a lot of guidance for the younger players on our team,” he continued. “Also, just to lead by example and make sure I’m setting a good example for these kids every day.”
For Hutchinson, who spent the previous campaign as an S2 assistant coach, the opportunity to refine players with First Team aspirations has him elated.
“There’s a lot of players [fans] should be looking out for actually,” said Hutchinson. “We’re a young team that’s going to try and win a lot of USL games.
“The setup [at Cheney Stadium] is fantastic, and we’re just ready for Friday night to roll around and get started."