For the fourth consecutive year, some of the top prospects from the club’s player development pipeline have joined the First Team for preseason.
Seven players under contract with the Tacoma Defiance – Sam Rogers (20), Shandon Hopeau (21), Azriel Gonzalez (18), Marlon Vargas (19), Danny Robles (18), Josh Atencio (17) and Ray Serrano (17) – were invited to the California phase of preseason.
In addition to the young professionals, Academy standouts Ethan Dobbelaere (17), Chris Hegardt (18) and Alex Villanueva (17) were given the opportunity to train with the Seattle Sounders in Long Beach.
According Hegardt, who played a key role in the Sounders U-17s winning the 2019 Generation adidas Cup, competing alongside the reigning MLS Cup champions has been an extremely valuable experience.
“It’s an environment where you’re going to grow and improve as a player,” he said. “I try to watch people that play my position, like Gustav Svensson, and see what they do so I can pick up their habits and become a better player.”
Villanueva (right) defends Kelvin Leerdam (left) during an intra-squad scrimmage | Josh Lavallee
Making the jump into the professional ranks is no easy task. As prospects traverse the Sounders pathway, which starts in the Academy and runs through the Defiance and First team, the pace of the game increases. The players are at each level are bigger, faster and stronger, forcing them to refine their technical ability and speed up their decision making.
Even though the trio of Academy kids are still amateurs, they’ve amassed a wealth of experience that belies their age, combining for 18 professional appearances with the Defiance in the USL Championship.
“When all of us first came into Tacoma, we came in kind of wide-eyed,” said Dobbelaere, who tallied one goal and three key passes in 280 minutes with the Defiance last season. “Now we’ve taken time to acclimate to that, which has just helped us to prepare and understand what a professional environment is like. That helps us when we come here because we know the pace is faster and every little mistake you make is going to get punished.”
In previous preseasons, the players and staff have spoken glowingly about the unique experiences afforded to the club’s young players. It’s a chance for these kids to play alongside the heroes they grew up watching on TV.
But there’s a different tenor in camp this year. This isn’t some fun trip for the kids to brag about to their friends at school. It’s imperative that they prove they belong on the pitch with the First Team, meeting the standard of the reigning MLS champs.
That message that has been received loud and clear by the Academy players.
“I think of these guys as competition because I’m trying to work to get to a point where I’m fighting for their job,” said Villanueva. “Personally, I look up to them and I respect them completely, but on the field it’s just another guy.”
Hegardt, who began training with the First Team regularly in the Summer of 2019, echoed that sentiment.
“At first, when you see them on the training field, it’s cool because you saw them play at CenturyLink the week before,” he added. “At the end of the day, you’re competing and you’re trying to take their spot. It’s all fun and games, but when you step on the field, you’re competing to show that you belong there.”
Hegardt, Dobbelaere and Villanueva all hold ambitions of playing professionally. But in order to earn a Homegrown contract with the club, they need prove day in, day out to the coaching staff that they can consistently play at the First Team level.
Facing off against guys like Raúl Ruidíaz, Stefan Frei and Nicolás Lodeiro every day in California is the perfect opportunity to stake their claim.