For the third consecutive year, some of the top prospects in the Seattle Sounders pipeline are joining the First Team for preseason.
Last season, six players from the U-17s and U-19s were integrated into preseason, giving them a unique opportunity to learn from the likes of Nicolás Lodeiro, Gustav Svensson and Chad Marshall.
After the young Sounders impressed in 2017, the club opted to bring along the following players this year from S2 and the Academy: Danny Leyva (15), Danny Robles (17), Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez (16), Alec Diaz (16), Shandon Hopeau (20), Nick Hinds (21), Josh Atencio (16), Ray Serrano (16), Azriel Gonzalez (17), Blake Malone (17), Marlon Vargas (18), Connor Drought (17), and Sam Fowler (18).
For young players traversing the club’s professional pathway, many of whom grew up Sounders fans, the experience of training alongside players they grew up watching on TV is a dream come true.
“Playing against the top players at the club really helps development,” said Atencio, who signed his first professional contract with the club last week. “The Sounders do a really good job of pushing guys up levels to challenge us.”
Now that the team has ventured to Orange County, Calif., for the second phase of preseason, the S2 and Academy players have been paired with First Team guys in their rooms, giving the youngsters countless chances to glean lessons from the MLS veterans they’ve looked up to for years.
Development tends to accelerate when players are taken out of their comfort zone, posing challenges that they must solve organically on the pitch. For attacking talents like Ocampo-Chavez, Gonzalez, Robles, Hopeau and Diaz, the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with players whose careers they hope to emulate on a daily basis is extremely valuable.
“I’ve been watching these guys for a really long time,” said Diaz, who tallied two goals and two assists in just 312 minutes of USL action last season. “I feel honored to be out here, playing against all of these great players. I feel like they’re making me better and they’re always really helpful on the pitch and in the locker room.”
S2 winger Vargas, who has already started seven USL matches, echoed that sentiment.
“It’s good because I learn a lot from them, especially a player I look up to like Lodeiro,” he said. “It’s great learning from him and how he plays the game, how he sees the game. I can take that and put it into my game as well, so I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”
From a development perspective, it’s critical that the young Sounders absorb lessons from experienced professionals. According to several S2 and Academy players, forward Raúl Ruidíaz has picked up that mantle, taking players under his wing and sharing wisdom from his career.
“Ruidíaz always talks to me,” said Vargas. “He always tells me to be comfortable, to be myself and to make a statement when I’m out here.”
According to Sounders FC Head Coach Brian Schmetzer, the presence of the club’s top prospects is about more than just gaining valuable experience, with the youngsters having a chance to earn a Homegrown contract.
“Last year we took a bunch of kids to preseason, and it was good to see, and it was our first go-around, really,” Schmetzer said after the second practice in Seattle. “This year, we’re taking a bunch of kids to preseason with the intent [being that] there’s a couple of roster spots open. And if any of them are any good, if they can make it, then we’ll sign a couple [to the First Team].”