The 2019 USL Championship season gets underway in earnest this week, with the Tacoma Defiance hosting its Media Day on Tuesday before taking on Rio Grande Valley FC Friday night. Last week, Sounders FC General Manager Garth Lagerwey fielded questions on the state of the club from a room full of journalists at CenturyLink Field for the club’s Media Day.
The subject of player development, focusing on the club’s exciting youth movement, was a recurring theme throughout the afternoon.
“We started our project in player development three years ago, in 2016,” said Lagerwey. “We’ve advanced to the stage now where we’ve won a [USSDA] national championship, we have 20 kids on youth national teams, and we have restructured now such that, there is no USL as a separate entity. There’s just player development and the First Team.
“Big tip of the cap to [Sounders FC Director of Player Development and Academy Director] Marc Nicholls, who’s led that effort over the last three years. He’s doing everything for us off the field, [Academy Director of Coaching and Tacoma Defiance Head Coach] Chris Little is doing everything for us on the field. Those guys have done a tremendous job with the talent we have, and we couldn’t be more excited about the future.”
Throughout the preseason, one of the most enthralling subject matters to emerge from camp was the integration of the club’s top prospects into training with the First Team. Whether it was the young kids holding their own against a first-choice Portland Timbers team or 15-year-old midfielder Danny Leyva making his CenturyLink Field debut, the club reached several new player development milestones.
Lagerwey noted during the media panel that the talented prospects showed a marked improvement throughout the 2019 preseason.
“This year, we’ve done it in a really meaningful [way],” he said. “You guys have seen double figure Academy/Defiance kids in our entire preseason. Danny Leyva played next to Nico Lodeiro in midfield. Those kinds of experiences are really incredible. We have the ability – we have roster spots open – where, if those kids continue to perform over the course of the season with the Defiance, you’re going to see some of those kids signed to Sounders contracts going forward.”
Asked to expound upon Lagerwey’s comments, Schmetzer revealed specific facets where he noticed growth among the club’s talented young core making their way up the pipeline.
Sounders Academy U-19 defender Blake Malone trained with the First Team at Media Day | Charis Wilson
“What I noticed was a little bit of change in Azriel [Gonzalez], Ray Serrano, some of the kids that we had last year to this year, there was a little bit of increase in their play,” added Schmetzer. “Their level of tactical awareness, certainly their speed of play was a little bit better. They still have to grow into their bodies. We have to understand that they’re still 15, 16, 17-year-old kids.”
While the Sounders FC Head Coach stressed the need to be patient with Seattle’s burgeoning group of prospects, he affirmed the club’s commitment – and responsibility – to progressing players into the First Team.
“Look, at some point in time, we’re going to take that leap of faith,” he said. “We are going to sign a young kid, we’re going to develop kids, because that’s just our sport. That’s what happens in all other places in the world. So, why shouldn’t we do it? Why shouldn’t an Azriel or a Leyva or a Serrano, why shouldn’t they get a chance? We need to have that happen.”
The Tacoma Defiance kick off the 2019 USL Championship campaign on Friday, March 8, with a home match against Rio Grande Valley FC (7:00 p.m. PT; ESPN+ | TICKETS).