Academy Staff Development article Cover Wade

Seattle Sounders FC has established itself in recent years as one of the premier youth development clubs in the country, churning out a rapidly growing list of Homegrown Players from the Academy that have broken through with the club’s First Team.

While those players make waves on the field, an equally strong record of developing and providing opportunities for members of the Academy staff has been fostered behind the scenes. The list of names that have started in the player development department and worked their way into prominent roles both within the Sounders organization and elsewhere is a lengthy one.

“Our culture is such that people believe that when they come to the Sounders, the organization is going to succeed,” said Sounders General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey. “And as the organization succeeds, then the individuals are going to get opportunities. That’s players and that’s staff. It’s everybody.”

Some examples of staff who have started with the Sounders Academy before blossoming into their current roles with the club include Sean Henderson (Director of Scouting), Wade Webber (head coach of Tacoma Defiance), Mike Morris (Tacoma Defiance assistant coach), Josh Ford (Tacoma Defiance assistant coach & head of developmental goalkeeping), Sheila Tatsunami (First Team Player Medical staff), Steve Cooke (Academy Director) and Brayton Knapp (U-15 Academy head coach). Additionally, former Colorado Rapids and OKC Energy FC head coach Steve Cooke was recently promoted from Sounders U-17 head coach to Academy Director.

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Multiple former Academy staff members have also worked their way from Seattle’s youth set-up into roles with other organizations. 

Former Academy Director Marc Nicholls is now the technical director for the Columbus Crew, while former then-S2 head coach Ezra Hendrickson is currently in his first year as an MLS head coach with Chicago Fire FC, where former Sounders Academy coach Junior Gonzalez is serving his assistant. Hendrickson’s successor, John Hutchinson, is now the El Paso Locomotive FC head coach after stints as an assistant in the Australian A-League and Japan’s J-League. Chris Little, who coached Defiance in 2019-2020, parlayed his time in Seattle to a first-team assistant role with the Colorado Rapids. Former Sounders Academy Director Gary Lewis departed the club in the offseason to become the head coach of USL Championship side New York Red Bulls II. 

“It’s incredible, it just helps us get a different perspective as well,” Sounders Vice President of Player Development Henry Brauner said. “I have regular conversations with Chris Little, with Marc Nicholls, with these guys. 

“They’re doing different things and those things can only help strengthen what we’re doing here. As we’re evolving here, they take that with them there and ultimately there’s that level of responsibility, not just within our club but the way the world views the American player.”

There’s an easy connection to make between how those staff members have progressed within the organization and how it similarly applies to the club’s philosophy on player development.

While the Sounders First Team has started to reap the rewards of its crop of Homegrowns on the field, some players have moved to other organizations within MLS or abroad. Former Academy midfielder Chris Hegardt is one recent example. The 20-year-old came up through Seattle’s academy before starring at Georgetown and is now in his rookie season with 2022 MLS expansion side Charlotte FC.

Brauner said it all ties into the club’s mission of helping push the game forward, not just in Seattle, but in the United States as a whole.

“We’re proud to be a part of that,” Brauner said. “But we want to make it better, we’re not done growing yet, it’s just something that we feel a really deep responsibility towards because that’s our goal. 

“We have to get on par with the world stage and the only way we do that is keep doing our jobs, developing the players, keep giving opportunities that will help us develop the players in different ways. That’s the goal.”

According to Lagerwey, the Sounders’ track record of developing members of the staff has created a systemic advantage in hiring replacements and maintaining the success of the program.

“If you’re developing the people and empowering them and holding them accountable, that’s a recipe for success for them,” he said. “If you have people that have good experiences, even if they move on they are going to speak highly of the club. And that will allow us to continue the virtuous cycle of attracting absolute premium talent.”