Rise of Danny Leyva, AOC augurs "final phase" in Sounders' youth project

TUKWILA, Wash. – For 30 seconds, Danny Leyva had CenturyLink Field rocking like it hadn’t rocked all season.

The Seattle Sounders’ 16-year-old academy product was an hour into his first career MLS start in Seattle’s match against the Vancouver Whitecaps on June 29, when a breakaway shot off the foot of teammate Justin Dhillon deflected off charging Whitecaps goalkeeper Zac MacMath, landing at Leyva’s feet some 35 yards away from goal.

With MacMath still off his line and down in the penalty box, Leyva took two touches before lofting a majestic, perfectly placed chip over three Vancouver defenders and right into the back of the net.

The ensuing scene at C-Link was electric. The 44,000-plus fans in attendance lost their collective mind as they watched the club’s most highly touted Homegrown prospect since Jordan Morris jump in the air and celebrate his first MLS goal before getting mobbed by his teammates.

Those celebrations were dashed in controversial fashion just moments later after referee Alan Kelly used Video Review to wave off the goal, ruling that Dhillon had fouled MacMath on the follow-through of his shot, sending the home crowd from raw euphoria to blinding rage.

Still, for Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey, the moment was perhaps the surest sign yet that his pet project is finally coming to life.

“From my chair, I’m much more interested in the years-long project than one or two games from Danny,” Lagerwey told last week. “It confirms the beginning of the project – the beginning of the final phase in that we’re now starting to introduce these players to the first team. So, it’s a cool milepost. We’ve accomplished the goal of starting to push players into the first team.”

Lagerwey has been working on this for a while now. Revamping Seattle’s youth development was his top priority when he took the job after departing Real Salt Lake in 2015, with the goal of eventually flooding the first team with talent from within the organization. While the Sounders hit big on two Homegrowns in Morris and DeAndre Yedlin before his arrival, Lagerwey’s goal is to churn out prospects like that in bunches.

It’s not necessarily a novel concept. Lagerwey is always quick to point out teams like the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas have successfully used similar blueprints, and it’s a trade he himself plied during his time at RSL. But part of the reason he was drawn to the job in Seattle, he says, was he wanted to try and use the increased resources that come with a major market to push it to the next level.

Leyva isn’t the only Homegrown teenager from the current crop to break through to Seattle’s first team this season.

The Sounders also signed 17-year-old forward Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez in May from their USL Championship affiliate Tacoma Defiance after he put up eye-popping numbers during a dominant academy career that saw him win the Golden Boot for Seattle’s Under-17 side, who won the 2019 Generation adidas Cup. Both Leyva and Ocampo-Chavez also starred for last year’s U-17 team that went 33-3-3 and cruised to a U.S. Soccer Development Academy national title.

“What’s really exciting about Danny and about Alfonso and the other kids coming through is, ‘What does this whole thing look like in six months or 12 months or 18 months?” Lagerwey said. “And are we able to systematically put these kids in a position to succeed in such a way that Danny doesn’t play one game or 10 games but that he plays 20 games or 30 games?

“When we accomplish that, that’s when we’ll see the impact we’ve really been going for in terms of building out this program."

While Ocampo-Chavez might find consistent minutes hard to come by, with Designated Player Raul Ruidiaz representing an elite starter at his position, Leyva’s chance to make a sustained first-team impact seems more immediate.

Initially a No. 10 when he first arrived in Seattle from Las Vegas, Nevada, the Sounders converted Leyva to a deeper-lying defensive midfielder, where he thrived at the academy level. It’s a position where the Sounders have an established first-choice pairing in Gustav Svensson and Cristian Roldan, but Svensson is 32 and has a lot of miles on his legs, meaning he’ll likely need to be rotated out at least some during congested parts of Seattle’s schedule.

Leyva has only played 188 MLS minutes so far, but the early returns have been intriguing, as he’s hardly looked out of his depth against MLS competition. On the contrary, he’s showed why he was able to move through Seattle’s system so quickly, demonstrating pinpoint passing ability well beyond his years and an impressive aptitude for reading opposing attackers’ passing lanes and winning possession.

He’s also a legitimate two-way threat, as he showed against Vancouver when he scored the goal that wasn’t.

“I’m not going to label him a defensive midfielder,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “I don’t think he’s a true No. 6, as evidenced by his ability to pick his head up and chip a ball over a bunch of players and into the back of the net. A lot of guys don’t have that ability. I think he has some attacking flair, I think some of his passing is very clean. So, [I’m] just really impressed with the kid.”

If Leyva does indeed become a starting-caliber MLS midfielder this season, it could be franchise-altering development. It’s been reported that the Sounders were in the market for a big-money defensive midfielder to eventually succeed Svensson, but if Leyva’s ascent continues, they may not need to break the bank on one.

If he achieves his full upside, he could also eventually be sold for a massive return. And with more highly-touted prospects currently in the pipeline, the ripple effects would become even bigger with every hit.

Whether or not this comes to pass, of course, will be determined over the coming months and years. But to hear Lagerwey tell it, this is just the beginning.

“It’s the idea of, can you produce players through a process that is replicable, such that you’re giving kids an opportunity that maybe they wouldn’t have had otherwise?” Lagerwey said.

“Then, you can recruit kids, maybe even from outside to Seattle to say, ‘Hey, look, we’ve proven this pathway now from the academy, to Defiance to MLS, so you should come join us too,’ which hopefully becomes a virtuous cycle where we increase the talent we’re able to attract, which gives us better players, which makes the project more successful and on and on.”