The Sounders FC youth movement is set to enter a new phase in the 2020 MLS season.
Fueled by an elite Academy, which has won international tournaments and sent dozens of players onto the youth national team circuit, the fruits of those labors could be born out at the First Team level next season.
“We have looked at things like we had the oldest roster in the league,” Sounders FC General Manager Garth Lagerwey said on Tuesday at the end-of-season press conference. “And we had the fewest minutes played of guys under the age of 23. There has to be some balance there, as well.”
With the team competing for trophies on four fronts – Concacaf Champions League, Supporters’ Shield, U.S. Open Cup and MLS Cup – players like Homegrown winger Handwalla Bwana, 22, will be given the opportunities to parlay his promising performances into consistent contributions.
“Handwalla Bwana is a good young player, very talented,” said Lagerwey. “He’s another one of these guys that we have to work on his development, and he has to be more consistent. So, it’s a two-way street. We have to get more out of him, and we think he’s capable of it.”
When Lagerwey took the helm in 2015, one of his first initiatives was increase funding and prioritization for player development. Targeting the younger age groups, the club expanded the infrastructure of its development pathway.
The first wave of players to benefit from the organization’s philosophical shift now fall in the 17-21 age bracket, the window in which young players around the world begin to break into their respective First Teams.
“We’ve been thinking about this a lot with our development project,” said Lagerwey. “We kind of feel like we’ve got it right up to the cusp, and now we’ve got to take the final step and really link it and push these guys into the First Team so our fans can see it week in, week out.”
In the most recent United States U-17 Men’s National Team World Cup cycle, seven different players from the Sounders Academy setup featured at various points, five of whom are under contract with the Tacoma Defiance or First Team. Players from the Academy aged 18 and under combined for 18 goals, 11 assists and over 10,000 minutes played in the USL Championship in 2019.
“We are in the infancy of this program,” added Lagerwey. “Yes, we’re in year four, so in that sense not in the infancy. We are just now approaching these kids getting old enough and far enough along in their pathway to start breaking into the First Team.”
Two of those players, Danny Leyva (16) and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez (17), already made meaningful contributions to the Sounders First Team during the 2019 season. Combining for five starts and nine appearances in MLS, the pair helped the team pick up wins against the Vancouver Whitecaps and Columbus Crew over the summer.
There’s also a host of talented prospects currently performing well in a professional environment with the Defiance. They’ll be expected to take on bigger roles as the Sounders toggle between Concacaf Champions League play and the MLS regular season early in 2020.
“They’re going to get the opportunity,” said Lagerwey. “It’s up for them to prove it.”