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It might seem odd to refer to a 21-year-old player as a wily veteran, but for Tacoma Defiance midfielder Marlon Vargas, it’s an apt description as he’s helped lead the team through its inaugural season as a member of MLS NEXT Pro.

The Bakersfield, California-native has been in the form of his life since mid-May, when he started a blistering streak that has seen him find the net in 11 of his last 12 games, scoring 12 goals over that stretch. Throw in his five assists, and Vargas has been one of the league’s premier stat-stuffing attackers in 2022.

With six matches remaining on the season, Vargas is currently fourth in the league’s Golden Boot race and sixth in assists. 

According to Sounders Vice President of Player Development Henry Brauner, the 2022 breakout for Vargas is the product of his lengthy run with the organization, which started when he was just 14 years old. 

 “I think with Marlon, he’s been at the club [since he was] very young,” Brauner told SoundersFC.com. “He came from Bakerfield Aztecs around 14, and he’s been in the Academy, he’s seen the whole pathway, he’s gone through Defiance, signed as a pro at a younger age. But ultimately Marlon’s another one of those guys who, look, they’re still showing potential. That’s the reality. 

“When the potential stops showing then, okay, you’re probably approaching a fully formulated player. But what we’ve seen from Marlon last year and definitely seen from Marlon this year is that, look, the cup isn’t full yet. A lot of people are paying attention to him and a lot of clubs have reached out about him. “

There’s no doubt Vargas is a prime example of how a player can continue to elevate their game through Seattle’s development pathway.

Seattle’s First Team will always invariably be hard to break into for a young attacker, given the high-profile names the Sounders typically will have at those positions. But consistent production at the youth levels can only help your case, and also open up myriad avenues for one’s career.

In the case of Vargas, Brauner said his performance this season has only opened doors, a reward for his decision to stay with the organization after last season, when he had opportunities to remain in the USL Championship.

“For Marlon to see it out and continue with the club, it’s only improved his opportunities, one, internally here, but two, MLS teams now,” Brauner said. “They know that, hey this guy is exceeding the level of where our internal depth charts project our players, so Marlon’s going to have some options moving forward, whether that’s internally with us or externally as well outside of the club.”

For Defiance this season, Vargas has emerged as not only a productive player, but a team leader, which Brauner said has been crucial for a side largely composed of players even younger than him.

With those attributes combined with his on-field development, Brauner said he believes there’s even greater heights for Vargas to reach.

“The biggest difference I’ve seen this year is he’s a leader,” Brauner said. “He’s now a leader. He’s been through that system, he has over 80 professional games. And he’s going to be 21 this year. That’s a lot of experience in a young player. 

“Because of his commitment and because of his loyalty, he’s had those opportunities,” he added. “And he’s a good role model, he’s a good leader for the young players and he’s hitting his stride. But again, the cup is not full with Marlon. I still believe there’s potential in there to be fulfilled and when Marlon’s a complete formulated player, again, excited to see what he’s going to be.”