Last year, for the first time in club history, the Sounders invited some of the brightest prospects in its Academy to participate in various stages of the 2017 MLS preseason.
The positive impact of the young Sounders in preseason has motivated the club to further integrate the top talents in the youth system with the First Team. Several stars from the U-17 squad — Josh Atencio (15), Marlon Vargas (17) and Ray Serrano (15) — have accompanied U-19 stalwarts Khai Brisco (17), Dylan Teves (17) and Azriel Gonzalez (16) for training camp in Chula Vista, Calif.
Additionally, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez (15), a striker for the U-17s and U-19s and a mainstay in the USYNT program, is expected to join the squad later on in preseason.
“I think everybody in the club enjoyed the guys going to preseason last year, and I think the performances of the players opened up everyone’s eyes as to the talent we have within the club,” said Sounders FC Director of Player Development and Academy Director Marc Nicholls. “The boys obviously did well and made a positive impression on the First Team coaching staff.
“We have a really talented generation coming through the Academy right now — they were possibly a little bit too young last year — and now our players will spend the first week with the First Team.”
Many of the young Sounders grew up as fans of the club, so the opportunity to train alongside their role models and develop under the tutelage of First Team Head Coach Brian Schmetzer is a dream come true.
“I’m here to learn, I want to be able to see the higher pace of the game, and it’s nice to see what the next level is and adapt to it early,” said Atencio. “It’s a great opportunity, and it’s kind of incredible that I get to be out here with players that I’ve been watching since I was really young.”
Schmetzer also likes what he sees from the young corps.
“For our Academy guys, it’s great,” he said. “They can play next to Clint [Dempsey], they can play next to Chad [Marshall], Román [Torres] and Ozzie [Alonso]. They are having a good time, but they are working. The senior players give them the example, but the young guys raise the level of training because they are full of energy. It’s a good give and take between the two groups.”
S2 center back Sam Rogers, who was in these players’ shoes last year, has been impressed by his fellow youth team products so far.
“They’re all very technical, and they work really hard, and it’s really good to see because it means our Academy is doing well and producing players that are ready to start pushing themselves to even higher levels at 15, 16 and 17-years-old,” said Rogers. “They want to be professional players, so to see them putting in the effort on the field and doing really well is great to see.”
The plethora of Sounders Academy players integrated into First Team training shows that the club values developing and promoting local players.
That club community, which includes four Homegrown players and five further Academy alums on S2, makes the youth players’ ambitions of one day suiting up for the first team feel tangible.
“I think the pathway to the First Team is becoming clearer and clearer for our players,” said Nicholls. “It makes the boys feel like the distance isn’t as great as they once thought and that they can close the gap.”
For Serrano, the unique developmental opportunities afforded to Academy players, such as competing in the Manchester City Cup and Youdan Trophy, has prepared him for competing with established professionals and national team stars.
“I feel like all of those experiences have helped me a lot and developed me as a player and help me get to where I am today,” said Serrano. “It’s just amazing to train with the First Team in preseason.”
But the best part for the Moses Lake, Wash. native so far? Going up against Dempsey, whose playing style he tries to emulate.
“As an Academy player, I always wanted to be as big as Dempsey,” said Serrano. “He was kind of like was my role model and I wanted to be just like him, so now that I’m training with him, it’s really cool.”