The past few weeks have been pretty great for Seattle Sounders FC midfielder Danny Leyva.
On April 1, he started alongside 10 First Team players as the Tacoma Defiance defeated Sacramento Republic 2-1 at Cheney Stadium. The next day, he earned his first call-up to the U.S. U-17 national team. And on Wednesday, he inked a Homegrown contract with the First Team, making him the youngest MLS signing in club history at 15.
The past few weeks have also been a whirlwind, but they’ve vindicated a decision Leyva made two years ago, when he left his hometown of Las Vegas to move to Seattle and join Sounders Academy.
“We’re delighted for Danny,” said Sounders FC Director of Player Development and Academy Director Marc Nicholls. “He epitomizes everything that we stand for as a program and as a club. He’s blessed with wonderful ability on the field, but off the field he’s an immaculate character. Obviously, he’s very young and we have to take good care of him — there will be ups and downs in his development — but he’s someone that we have a high level of belief in.”
Tacoma Defiance Starting XI photo ahead of the 2-1 win over Sacramento Republic | Charis Wilson
Leyva first caught the club’s attention with his stellar performances for his local select team, Barcelona Las Vegas (no affiliation with the La Liga giants). Impressed by his talent on the pitch and character off it, the club offered him a spot in the youth system. Facing a difficult decision, Leyva spoke at length with his family and chose the Sounders because of the Homestay Program and the club’s commitment to developing professional players internally.
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
In 2015, the club began laying down infrastructure and programming to systemically produce top talents from the youth system for the First Team. With the foundation set, Leyva is the first player to traverse the pathway from Sounders Discovery Program to the Academy to the Defiance to the First Team.
“Danny has been exemplary in his conduct throughout his time in the Academy,” said Tacoma Defiance Head Coach and Academy Director of Coaching Chris Little, who also coached Leyva with the U-17s last season. “His ability to make the players around him better, with his habits and character, has been fantastic. He’s been a great role model to the other players in the Academy, and it sets a precedent for our professional pathway.
“Every time there’s a Homegrown player who signs, it then shows all the other young players in the club that they can be next. There’s a pathway. There’s a First Team manager who believes in young players. They see they have an opportunity, if they earn it.”
The Academy staff believes that talent is too rare to stand still. As a result, the club will have top youth talents play above their age group, which forces them to develop their technical and tactical capabilities, as they can’t rely on their physicality or athleticism when playing against bigger, faster opponents.
According to Sounders FC Director of Scouting Sean Henderson, who coached Leyva with the U-15s, his signing is very much the tip of the iceberg for talented youngsters coming through the youth system.
Leyva playing for the Academy U-17s at Starfire Sports Complex in 2017 | Quinn Width
“This wouldn’t have happened four years ago,” he said. “We didn’t have that pathway and infrastructure in place. We weren’t able to go scout a player that young in Las Vegas. We didn’t have the same resources at the academy level, with video analysts, sports performances coaches and education. And most importantly, he would have hit a ceiling at some point if he didn’t have the USL team to go to, or the First Team staff to bring him up into training and preseason.”
JOURNEY THROUGH THE YOUTH RANKS
After initially excelling with the U-15s, Leyva was brought up to the U-17s for the first phase of Generation adidas Cup qualifying. Promoted to the U-17s full-time, he quickly cemented a spot on a squad that went on to win the GA Cup Premier Division and USSDA national championship. Leyva featured in every playoff match, providing assists in the DA semifinal and final victories.
A cerebral, box-to-box midfielder, the Sounders have also utilized Leyva as a No. 10 and No. 6, helping him develop a holistic understanding of various midfield roles. He’s become a more well-rounded player, equally capable of dishing out a line-breaking assist as he is at winning a tackle and circulating possession.
The U-17s celebrate wining the club's first USSDA national championship | Nick Smith
“He covers a lot of ground,” noted Henderson. “He’s mobile and he’s always around the play. That’s the first thing you notice. He can be in a Defiance game and he is helping dictate the rhythm and tempo of the game. He’s not hiding when we’re building out and under pressure, he’s asking for the ball. Where he’s improved a lot since joining the Academy is his longer passing and ability to make forward passes and key passes.”
Excelling with the U-17s, Leyva made his pro debut, playing 90 minutes on the road against San Antonio FC in September 2018. He was quickly rewarded with his first professional contract on Oct. 16.
After several standout performances for the First Team throughout the 2019 preseason, including a CenturyLink Field debut, he has started four USL Championship matches for the Defiance.
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT
This contract isn’t on the basis of a few solid showings in preseason. In total, Leyva has played 70 games in the Academy and over 10 matches at the professional level, and he’s trained regularly with the First Team since 2018. The club has a large sample size of data on the youngster, and his Homegrown deal is a reward for his hard work, development and consistent progression.
As the first player to take every stop along the club’s professional pathway, the kid from Las Vegas can now serve as an example for the bevy of talented prospects making their way up the pipeline.