Ahead of the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, the defending champion Seattle Sounders have suddenly seen their depth take a couple hits.
It started with the surprise retirement of midfielder Harry Shipp — one of Seattle's key rotational players for the last two seasons and one who figured to get a lot of minutes during a congested schedule that will require plenty of squad rotation. Then, forward Will Bruin sustained a tibia injury during a scrimmage at Starfire Sports Complex earlier this week, thrusting his availability for the tournament into question.
Bruin was fully recovered from a torn ACL that he suffered last season, but the new knock might leave the Sounders without their primary backup to Raul Ruidiaz once again. With those losses in mind, it could very well fall onto some of the young faces from Seattle's much-heralded youth development system to soak up some minutes. Tacoma Defiance youngsters Josh Atencio and Ethan Dobbelaere have each been signed to first-team contracts leading up the tournament, and while Schmetzer said they still have to earn their minutes, he added that the recent losses the team has endured could open their window of opportunity sooner than anticipated.
"I'm not going to be afraid to throw a young player on there if one of the senior players has heavy legs and you've got a couple extra subs and a burst of young enthusiasm, energy, they're going to try and impress the coaches -- sometimes that's a good thing to have in your arsenal," Schmetzer said.
Of the two, Dobbelaere's rise has been perhaps the more unexpected. The 17-year-old Seattle native only has seven USL Championship appearances with Tacoma, fewer than general manager Garth Lagerwey has said he'd typically like to see from his Homegrown players before signing them to the first team. But Schmetzer said he's been impressed with Dobbelaere's technical skill and his training ground battles with left back Nouhou, who has evidently been giving the youngster a crash course in what it's like to practice with the pros.
Seattle Sounders' Homegrown signing Ethan Dobbelaere (right) is looking to make a case for minutes at the MLS is Back Tournament | USA Today Sports
"When you look at the kid, number one, he looks at the coaching staff, and his eyes [light up] because he's eager to learn," Schmetzer said of Dobbelaere. "I think the kid is so happy to be a pro on the Seattle Sounders. He's done great. He's done everything we've asked, he's been really good from a coaching perspective.
"On the field, you've got to give the kid some time — and I say that because he's good technically, he can find a pass, he's been okay in some areas, but usually when we match him up — he plays right midfield — and Nouhou Tolo's playing left back and Nouhou's big and powerful and I love watching that develop because Nouhou sometimes smashes on the kid and Ethan has to pick himself up and say, 'Holy smokes, this is what it's like playing against Nouhou Tolo.' So it's kind of a learning curve for the kid, and we're just getting the feel for whether he can stick with it. But so far, so good."
It remains to be seen how much the Sounders have to lean on their youthful faces, but their first-choice XI remains one of the league's more potent and experienced groups, coming off an MLS Cup title with a pair of talented additions in midfielder Joao Paulo and Yeimar Gomez Andrade. Schmetzer also said star playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro is raring to go after missing all of Seattle's Concacaf Champions League series against Club Olimpia and the first two league games of the season with hamstring tendinitis.
Still, asked how he's managing the team given the expectations that come with being the reigning champs, Schmetzer downplayed the notion that the Sounders think of themselves as the team to beat in Group B.
"We're not looking at ourselves as the favorites, we're not looking at this as we're the defending champs, we're just going to roll teams over," he said. "We're too smart for that. Our first opponent, San Jose, is a very, very good team.
"None of these games are going to be easy — not Vancouver, because they're a rival, I know Marc dos Santos is trying to improve on his record from last year -- it's not an easy group. There's parity in MLS, so maybe you guys think we're the favorite but we're definitely not messaging it like that to the players."