Josh Atencio – Seattle Sounders – Dribble upfield

By his own description, Brian Schmetzer is “naturally pretty conservative” as a coach. That approach has worked quite well for the Seattle Sounders’ boss, who signed a new multi-year contract extension over the winter, seven weeks after he led the Rave Green to their fourth MLS Cup final in five years.

There’s a general perception that Schmetzer doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to set his team up for success. The Sounders are one of the best-run clubs in MLS, with a highly competent staff, large fanbase, sturdy financial foundation and consistently big ambitions. That’s added up to a reliance on established veterans, players who know what it takes to win in MLS.

As the landscape shifts around them, however, we see signs of Schmetzer trying out some new tricks.

“We have always been a club where we've had senior players and the senior players have done extremely well. But the circumstances are always changing within MLS,” the coach told reporters when his new contract was announced. “There are forces, both external and internally, that make it important that we do a good job in the youth development arena. So we're trying to find the right balance of sustaining success … There's some young players on the horizon that can be very good players for us.”

Could an honest-to-goodness youth movement be the next chapter for Seattle? The products of their methodically-overhauled youth development pathway were a leading topic of conversation around the club over the winter, and on opening day Schmetzer followed through.

When the first lineup sheet of 2021 was posted, the defensive midfielder at the heart of their new 3-5-2 shape was 19-year-old homegrown Josh Atencio. Making his first-ever MLS start, preferred over more experienced options like Jordy Delem and Kelyn Rowe, he turned in one of the top performances of the match as Seattle cruised past Minnesota United 4-0.

The next week, Atencio was again in the starting lineup for a 1-1 draw at fellow Western Conference pace-setters LAFC. Ethan Dobbelaere, an 18-year-old academy product, has come off the bench in both matches, while midfielder Danny Leyva has made the matchday squad. The trio will be hopeful of being involved once more when the Sounders host in-form LA Galaxy on Sunday (9 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).

“This is six years of work that’s coming together, finally. We’ve talked, and talked, and talked, and we’ve worked, and worked, and worked,” Sounders president Garth Lagerwey told host Jackson Felts recently on 950 KJR’s Sounders Weekly radio show. “It’s such a long process to fill the talent pipeline to have success with the teams. To win the [US Soccer Development Academy] national title, to be the first team to ever win the GA Cup, and this is the last summit.”

Tacoma Defiance, the Sounders’ USL Championship side, is already packed with academy products. The big question is which ones can kick on and truly break through at the MLS level.

Atencio cut his teeth in Tacoma, then mostly rode the bench with the first team last season as COVID-19 wreaked a particular sort of havoc on the development structure built by Seattle and other clubs. The mitigation protocols implemented to prevent the virus’ spread effectively barred the fluid interchange of young players like him between the MLS and USL squads that is so central to that model, though it also immersed him in a different sort of education.

“Young players will tell you that if you're on the field every day with Nico \[Lodeiro\], with Raul \[Ruidiaz\], with Cristian \[Roldan\], with Gustav [Svensson], you learn and you pick up things from some of the senior players,” Schmetzer said earlier this month. “I think a lot of [Atencio’s] development happened last year. We couldn't get him games down at Defiance, which was the one thing that we didn't like. But so far, so good.”

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Seattle can already claim two of the more prominent homegrown players in MLS history in US men’s national teamers Jordan Morris and DeAndre Yedlin. But those two spent much of their formative years elsewhere, be it other Puget Sound-area youth clubs or key stints in top college programs (Stanford and Akron, respectively).

The Rave Green are still seeking a walking proof of concept, a homegrown who progresses through every level of the infrastructure they’ve built before becoming a key contributor to the first team, someone akin to Brenden Aaronson for Philadelphia or Gianluca Busio with Sporting Kansas City.

This model is fast becoming influential in the league Seattle have dominated for the past half-decade, and it seemed a key consideration when they replaced longtime sporting director Chris Henderson (now at Inter Miami CF) with Craig Waibel, Lagerwey’s former colleague at early academy adopters Real Salt Lake.

“We need to change our focus now in the salary cap cycle we are in,” Lagerwey said over the winter. “We're going to still compete for championships every year, but we do now need to focus a little bit more on the player development and overcome that last hurdle. We've had the players – we have them signed to the first team – we haven't gotten them into the first team yet.

“We've seen other teams, Kansas City, Philadelphia, the teams that won the West and won the East [in the 2020 regular season], playing a number of good young players on both of those teams. So we know it's possible to both compete and to use young players.”

Seattle got a reminder of the ancillary benefits of growing your own when Norwegian club Molde sold ex-Sounder Henry Wingo to Hungary’s Ferencvaros in January. With that transfer fee reportedly approaching $1 million, Seattle collected a decent chunk of change from it thanks to sell-on fees and solidarity payments – all for a player who couldn’t carve out regular minutes for them in MLS.

Ask Schmetzer about his club’s youth pipeline and he’s likely to reel off a long list of names climbing the ranks, followed by detailed rundowns of their tools and outlook. Earlier this month he devoted some 250 words to just such an answer during a media roundtable, citing the likes of Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, Juan Alvarez, Ethan Dobbelaere, Reid Baker-Whiting (a 2020 signing who’s the youngest player in club history at 15), Shandon Hopeau, Sota Kitahara, Danny Leyva, Cody Baker, Taka Sasaki and AB Cissoko with barely a pause for breath.

Could Atencio or one of those others become Seattle’s homegrown poster child? The devil’s in the details and striking the right balance can prove elusive. The Rave Green will surely remain focused on their title aspirations in the near term as veterans like Lodeiro, Ruidiaz and Stefan Frei move deeper into their 30s.

But as the old perception of you don’t win with kids in MLS erodes, it’s no longer quite the either/or it once was – especially with 2021 shaping up to be a physically demanding campaign with a compressed schedule and hectic international windows.

“We're going to need a lot of these young players,” Schmetzer said. “We have talented kids in our organization, and we will take each one of those kids and yes, view them as a collective, as young players, but each one of them might have a subtly different development path. And we will help the kids, we will chart a future, plan a future for them. And hopefully most of them will have a successful career.”

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