The Seattle Sounders have battled through plenty of adversity this season.
Whether it’s long-term injuries that sidelined 2020 MLS Most Valuable Player finalists Nicolás Lodeiro and Jordan Morris for the majority of the year, fixture congestion or missing key players due to international duty, the Sounders have managed to overcome countless obstacles.
A key driver of the team’s success for most of the season has been a full embrace of the club’s ‘Next Man Up’ ethos. Relying on the entirety of the squad has created opportunities for young players on the squad, like Homegrowns Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva, with the pair enjoying breakout seasons in MLS in 2021.
“For me personally, coming off of a tough year [in 2020] with the injuries, this year has been a really positive one for me,” Leyva told SoundersFC.com. “I’ve been getting a lot of minutes, supporting a lot for the team and getting starts.”
The eye-test has shown in Leyva and Atencio the Sounders have a pair of talented midfielders that could be cornerstones of the club in years to come. In the here and now, though, they’ve managed to fully integrate into a veteran-laden squad with title aspirations.
“We’re not the young guys anymore who are here just to get experience. We’re just players like everyone else that wants to contribute to the team and help out. We’re always ready, like the next man up mentality. Having that role just gives us confidence.”
With the Rave Green hitting the 60-point threshold for just the third time in club history, Atencio and Leyva have been solid contributors throughout a 2021 MLS regular season, combining for 26 starts and 48 overall appearances
Atencio, 19, is well above league average for midfielders when it comes to key underlying defensive metrics, finished second in MLS for average distance covered and showed flashes of his excellent passing and dribbling. Leyva, 18, has drastically increased his defensive activity while further demonstrating his quality on the ball, with the young midfielder often brought into matches as a substitute to help establish control of possession.
According to Atencio, playing alongside 2021 MLS MVP finalist João Paulo has been instrumental to his own development.
“I’ve never played with anyone like João Paulo,” said Atencio. “I’ve never seen someone be able to do everything right and then some. He can also do amazing things, like go 70 yards and meg two guys [against the Colorado Rapids]. He’s just different and it’s awesome to play next to him.”
Leyva echoed that sentiment, noting that all of the veteran players in the locker room go out of their way to help the young guys grow as professionals.
“[Raúl Ruidíaz] is a really good mentor for me,” he said. “The other guys as well – Nico [Lodeiro], Fredy [Montero] and others – they’re all really helpful to us. We always have conversations on what we can improve on and give us advice. Having big players like that who are legends helping you out is just the best.”
Many of the coaches and senior players have remarked over the season that the Homegrowns on the team no longer just feel like the young guys – they’re fully contributors just like anyone else. While Leyva and Atencio both agreed, they also noted that they constantly appreciate how special it is to be playing for such a successful club.
“Every time I walk out on the field, I just try to look around the stadium, read the names [in the rafters] and look at the crowd,” said Atencio. “I get this giddy feeling that I’m not up in those stands, I’m on the field. I’ve been watching them for so long and dreaming about the day I get to step on that field.”
The Sounders return to action on Tuesday as they host Real Salt Lake (7:30 p.m. PT; FS1, FOX Deportes, 1090 KJR AM, El Rey 1360AM | TICKETS) at Lumen Field in Round One of the 2021 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.