The Seattle Sounders' 1-0 road victory over Austin FC on Thursday wasn't just a big three-point result amid a 2021 campaign that has head coach Brian Schmetzer's group on a Supporters' Shield pace through 15 matches. It was also a historic moment in the club's multi-year drive to create one of the most fruitful youth development programs in MLS.
General manager and president of soccer Garth Lagerwey has discussed those aspirations for years since taking the job in 2015: Creating a pipeline from their youth academy to USL Championship side Tacoma Defiance to the first team. If all goes to plan, that pathway continually yields impact contributors for the MLS level. And on Thursday, Seattle got their most encouraging data point yet.
Needing to utilize depth as Seattle contended with 10 absences to first-team regulars, Schmetzer deputized one of the youngest lineups in MLS history, one that included a record five players that were aged 19 or younger in the starting XI. The kids helped the Sounders take all three points, delivered by some gutsy play from the crop of homegrowns and hardship signings, plus a second-half golazo from Raul Ruidiaz.
Nobody would blame you for not having a wealth of knowledge about the five teenagers who took on Austin. Given that, here's a breakdown of each one.
Atencio's rise was among the stories of Sounders' preseason training camp and the opening stretch of their MLS season. The 19-year-old was a surprise inclusion in Seattle's starting XI in their season-opener against Minnesota United, a 4-0 victory, and has been a regular rotation piece for Brian Schmetzer ever since, save for a brief stretch where he was sidelined by a quad injury.
While his primary position is defensive midfield, Atencio is also capable of playing center back – and he was forced to appear there against Austin due to injuries to Nouhou and Shane O'Neill. It went about as well as anyone could have expected, as Atencio put in a monster shift and earned a place on the Team of the Week presented by Audi, all at a position he never played in MLS. Atencio isn't just an emergency stop-gap. At this point, he's solidified himself as someone who can continue to see regular minutes.
Leyva was the youngest homegrown signing in club history when he inked his first-team contract as a 15-year-old in 2019, drawing plenty of attention as the first breakthrough signing from Seattle's academy pipeline. After some promising initial appearances, his 2020 season was largely derailed by a foot injury, forcing him to work his way back to full health and back into contention for first-team minutes.
After initially getting buried on the depth chart, Leyva has re-emerged in recent weeks, with Atencio's injury spell and Seattle's all-around depleted depth resulting in him starting three straight matches. The 18-year-old is a gifted passer and has seen his defensive contributions improve as he continues to adapt to the physical demands of MLS. Like Atencio, Leyva might not yet be part of Seattle's first-choice starting XI during a normal week, but he certainly figures to remain a factor as a midfield depth piece.
Baker-Whiting has long been touted as one of the most talented prospects coming through Seattle's academy by club brass, earning his homegrown first-team contract back in May. He then made his second MLS appearance and first start in Thursday's match. By the time it was all said and done, it could be argued that RBW – as he's already become known among the Sounders faithful – had the most head-turning shift of any of the five starting teens, given his relative anonymity beforehand.
The 16-year-old was composed on the ball, set up a golden opportunity for Tacoma teammate Samuel Adeniran with a pinpoint through ball, and nearly scored in the first half with a clever run behind the Austin backline before teeing up a shot that forced goalkeeper Brad Stuver into a reaction save. There's clearly no fear in his game, and Schmetzer hasn't been shy about praising the midfielder's poise and potential. If Thursday's match is any indication, it might not be long before Baker-Whiting commands more minutes alongside Atencio and Leyva.
Dobbelaere has been around the organization for a while, first joining through the Sounders Discovery Program as an 11-year-old, but has flown somewhat under the radar. Still, he's a highly-rated talent in his own right, having played a key role in the club's 2018 academy national title. He also featured for the United States at the FIFA U-17 World Cup as part of his ascent to the first team.
This year, the 18-year-old has appeared in six games so far and made two starts totaling 161 MLS minutes. Perhaps the most impressive trait he's demonstrated is his versatility. With the Sounders down so many pieces on Thursday, Dobbelaere slotted in as the right wingback in Seattle's five-man backline and didn't look out of his depth by any stretch, making a handful of gutsy runs forward and showing off some solid crossing ability. Adaptability like that could go a long way as he looks to stay a part of Schmetzer's rotation.
It's doubtful many had heard of Vargas before Thursday's match, as he was one of four players called in from Defiance on an extreme hardship waiver, with most probably figuring he wouldn't see the field unless there was a drastic emergency. But that wasn't the case, as Schmetzer rolled him out in the starting XI, making him the third-youngest player in league history to either start or play in a match at 15 years and 351 days.
The youngster acquitted himself well across 77 minutes, completing 92.3 percent of his passes and holding his own against some much bigger opposition. Vargas figures to get more seasoning in Tacoma as the Sounders get some of their regulars back, but he undoubtedly made a positive first impression.