When Tacoma Defiance center back Sam Rogers was a 17-year-old prospect in the Seattle Sounders Academy, he opted to ink a professional contract instead of going the traditional college soccer route. Two years later, the promising midfielder-turned-defender has amassed 3,753 minutes in the USL Championship, emerging as one of the top defensive prospects in the country.
From a macro perspective, his decision blazed a trail for future generations of young Sounders to replicate. Since Rogers signed with his hometown club, eight of the top talents from youth system have signed directly with the club’s USL Championship outfit.
One of those players, 17-year-old Josh Atencio, has followed Rogers’ path even closer. Rising through the Academy ranks as a cerebral, technical holding midfielder, the Bellevue native has evolved into an intriguing center back at the professional level.
Atencio, 17, has received significant playing time at both defensive midfield and center back | Charis Wilson
“I think [Atencio’s] done well,” said Defiance Head Coach Chris Little. “He’s a smart player. He’s intelligent, his reading of the game is good. He’s transitioned well into that role when we’ve played him there.”
Much like Rogers, Atencio made a name for himself in the Academy as one of the top central midfielders in the country.
Atencio, who is 6-foot-1 and fits the club’s positional profile for a center back, had only lined up as a defender one time before the U-17s competed in the Generation adidas Cup Champions Division in April. He anchored a back line that conceded just one goal as the Sounders defeated the Montreal Impact, Flamengo, River Plate, West Ham and Valencia CF, becoming the first MLS side to win the top division of GA Cup.
“It’s good to be versatile and have different options,” said Little. “I think that’s the main thing behind it. We think he’s done well, so does he have the potential to play two positions? Where is he going to be down the line? We don’t know, but it’s good for him to experience both positions.”
Atencio in the Academy U-17s’ 1-0 win over River Plate at GA Cup | Andrew Harris
Atencio has played over 240 minutes at center back since those star-turn displays at GA Cup, helping the Defiance register a second-half clean sheet on the road against San Antonio. Two of his last three starts — a 1-1 draw with Reno 1868 FC and a 2-2 road draw with LA Galaxy II — have also come in defense, where he started alongside Rogers.
When it comes to defenders, there are piano players and piano movers. Atencio, who has completed 80.4 percent of his 470 pass attempts, is certainly the former, with his elite composure and superb passing critical to the Defiance’s build-out play. Much like Rogers, his vision and line-breaking passes allow Tacoma’s attacking midfielders to occupy positions further up the pitch, which in turns lead to more chances created.
“We collectively believe that the modern center back has to be comfortable on the ball,” said Defiance Assistant Coach Wade Webber. “He needs to be able to play balls through gaps that other players deem too narrow. Josh passes really well, he’s good in the air and he’s athletic enough.”
No slouch defensively, he has registered 18 clearances, 7 blocks, 9 interceptions, 11 tackles and 46 successful duels across eight starts for the Defiance.
At the Concacaf Championships, the U.S. U-17 men’s national team consistently fielded a center back pairing of left back Kobe Hernandez-Foster and midfielder Tayvon Gray. With a strong run at center back in the USL Championship over the coming months, Atencio could break into Head Coach Raphael Wicky’s plans for the U-17 World Cup in the fall.
Top young talents need to be taken out of their comfort zone, as it forces them to elevate their game to meet the standards of competition. Rogers’ defensive acumen was forged in the crucible of the USL Championship.
“As a center back, everything is about organization,” said Webber. “Sam is very good at communicating and organizing players round him. Center back is the easiest position on the field, if everyone is where they’re supposed to be. If they’re out of position, it’s a horrifying position to play. Josh is not as vocal as he needs to be — he’s instinctively very smart, reads things very well and takes feedback exceptionally well — so it’s helpful for him to play alongside Sam.”
Only time will tell if Atencio becomes a center back instead of a holding midfielder. But with Rogers by his side, he’s got the perfect mentor to learn from as he competes for a Homegrown contract with the First Team.