Leyva’s rapid ascent from youth team talent to MLS contributor didn’t occur in a vacuum. It was the natural byproduct of years of scrupulous work conducted by the club as they overhauled the pathway from the Academy through to the USL Championship and, eventually, the First Team.
On Monday, the club announced the signings of Homegrown midfielders Josh Atencio (18) and Ethan Dobbelaere (17), providing another key data point that the development system is capable of consistently churning out prospects for the First Team.
“It’s a big feather in the cap of those who’ve been willing to invest in the project: Garth Lagerwey, Chris Henderson, Brian Schmetzer and Adrian Hanauer,” said Sounders FC Director of Player Development Henry Brauner. “They believe in the project and they’re willing to support the project.”
The club signing Homegrown Players isn’t a new phenomenon, as anyone who’s seen Jordan Morris and DeAndre Yedlin star for club and country could tell you.
In the past, Homegrown Players would have spent a year or two in the Academy, gone off to college four years and then play their first professional minutes when they were 21 or 22 years old. But now they enter MLS with thousands of professional minutes in the USL Championship under their belt, and have spent almost five years learning and absorbing the club’s tactical system in the youth ranks.
These signings are just the next progression of the club’s long-term objective to annually produce players capable of making meaningful contributions in MLS and abroad.
“We obviously are proud of the progress we’ve made so far,” said Sounders FC General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey. “But, likewise, we’re cognizant that we have a lot more to do. This is a great first step for these young men, and we have high hopes for them, but it’s important to note that we haven’t accomplished anything yet. We haven’t had one of these kids break into the First Team as a regular contributor.
“We’ve got some guys knocking on the door, but that’s the next big step for our program. Can we convert all of that success in the development sphere – playing in youth World Cups, winning national titles, winning GA Cups – and turn it into success for the First Team?”
Atencio and Dobbelaere’s trajectory from the Academy to the First Team is proof of concept for the expansive programming aimed at accelerating development of the club’s top prospects, as the duo are the first local Homegrowns to come through the Sounders Discovery Program.
“For all of us that are involved in the development side of the club, these are the things that make us so happy,” added Tacoma Defiance Head Coach and Sounders Academy Director of Coaching Chris Little. “You’ve got local players that have come through our pathway and have earned the opportunity to get a contract with the First Team.”
First launched in 2015, SDP invites the top club players from around the state, spanning from the U-12 to U-14 age groups, to train together twice per week under the tutelage of Sounders Academy coaches. Utilizing the Academy’s methodology and pedagogy, the goal of SDP is to accelerate development through increased competition and training, increase the efficacy in scouting players to join the full-time Academy teams, and decrease the learning curve for players selected to remain with the club at the U-15 level.
“Because of SDP and because of the investment in the community, now you’re starting to see [young players sign with the First team],” added Brauner.” The next couple of [top prospects] that are coming all went through SDP. If you’re looking for the secret sauce, this might be it. Hopefully there will be another 5-6 Homegrowns that all came through SDP.”
The first local players to graduate to the Sounders from the enhanced player pathway, Atencio and Dobbelaere also benefitted greatly from the Academy’s commitment to international and professional exposure from a young age. And in addition to amassing over 35 combined appearances with the Tacoma Defiance, Atencio and Dobbelaere have trained consistently with the First Team for over a year.
With four Homegrowns on the First Team roster aged 18 or under, and a host of talented youngsters percolating with the Defiance, the Sounders appear poised to enter the upper echelon of player development in North America. But the true litmus test for this program's success will be measured by each player's contributions in MLS.
“Now you’re starting to see just the tip of the iceberg,” Brauner said of the signings. “You’ve got a full group of players that are getting comfortable in the USL and pushing into the First Team. Because of that investment and willingness to believe in the project, you’re going to see that start to bear fruit.”
All of these kids possess the strong soccer foundations and an opportunities necessary to break into MLS. Now they have to make the most of it.