National Writer: Charles Boehm

Seattle Sounders look to youth as post-João Paulo reality sets in

Brian Schmetzer didn’t like the question, and you could tell.

Seattle Sounders FC’s head coach is almost unfailingly gracious with journalists; he even dabbled in bits of Spanish to connect with Mexican-based reporters during his team’s Concacaf Champions League run this spring. But as he stood before a pitchside media scrum at Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, Washington Wednesday night, a query about his decision to hold several star players like Raul Ruidiaz and Nico Lodeiro out of the Rave Green’s marathon US Open Cup clash with the San Jose Earthquakes clearly rankled.

“You know what? I put a team out there that was able to win this game, dead stop. I have complete faith in Will \[Bruin\], in Fredy \[Montero\], in \[Leo\] Chu, in Ethan \[Dobbelaere\], in Kelyn \[Rowe\], in \[Jimmy\] Medranda, who was dangerous at times, his set pieces were unbelievable. I put a team out there,” retorted Schmetzer after the loss that eliminates them from a tournament they’ve won four times since their arrival in MLS.

“I don't buy into that narrative. Those guys played well out there. That group that went on the field played really well, and I'm proud of them.”

It was a firm defense, and possibly a calculated one, from a classic ‘player’s coach.’ It made sense, too, under the circumstances. After leaking two soft-ish goals, the Sounders rallied ferociously to level the match and were the protagonists down the stretch, with an 11-round penalty shootout eventually decided by the goalkeepers’ spot-kicks required to break the deadlock – about as even as it gets.

Still, that’s the nature of the beast in Seattle. The afterglow from their historic CCL triumph over Pumas is fading faster than you might think, thanks to a 2W-5L-1D start to league play that’s left them second from bottom in the overall table as they welcome Minnesota United to Lumen Field for Sunday’s Week 11 duel (4 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes). This is an organization of chronic, habitual winners and a fanbase that knows it; Schmetzer said it himself during the Champions League run:

A home Open Cup loss, as agonizingly narrow as it was, to a Quakes side mercilessly routed by the Sounders several times in recent years raises further questions ahead of the Loons’ visit, starting with the pressing matter of the João Paulo-sized hole in deep midfield.

An ACL tear suffered in the first half of the second-leg CCL final victory over Pumas UNAM has ruled out the Brazilian No. 6 – an All-Star and Seattle’s team MVP last year – for the rest of the season. That robs the Rave Green of their metronome, a do-it-all problem solver who in 2021 ranked among league leaders in a diverse span of categories, ranging from assists and interceptions to tackles won and chance creation from set pieces.

As much as Schmetzer had to chop and change his lineups while fighting on two fronts, João Paulo was close to ever-present, starting seven of their eight CCL matches and six of their seven MLS games before his injury. But the coach has so far maintained that SSFC’s impressive depth means reinforcement from outside is not necessary – granted, though, a cynic might say he had little choice considering that the injury happened to coincide with the closing of MLS’s Primary Transfer Window on May 4.

“We almost have too much depth [at holding mid],” Schmetzer said last week. “We have three young kids who are super talented.”

That would be Obed Vargas, the 16-year-old wunderkind who replaced João Paulo against Pumas and has inspired a surging hype train with his start to 2022; Josh Atencio, last year’s engine-room revelation, still just 20; and Danny Leyva, another teenage talent once rated as the club’s top prospect. All are homegrowns out of Seattle’s increasingly prolific academy, and all seem to have earned the faith of Schmetzer and the technical staff writ large.

Vargas and Atencio started against FC Dallas last weekend; Leyva and Atencio got the nod vs. the Quakes at Starfire. Given how seamlessly and effectively he’s slotted into a deeper role in Seattle, Designated Player Albert Rusnak is likely to be eased back into one of those No. 6 slots soon.

Perhaps that rotation of four options for what’s usually two places will be enough to power the Sounders towards their remaining ambitions. Schmetzer could also adjust the formation, as he often has lately, or shift Rowe or one of the Roldan brothers Cristian and Alex central given their ample past experience in the middle. That, though, could well have a knock-on effect on the flank areas where they’ve been so effective, posing another set of variables.

It looks like a timely test for the academy kids. While Seattle’s slow-burn youth development project has become a key storyline around the club for the past couple seasons, they arguably haven’t truly had to depend on its fruits for first-team competitiveness yet, thanks to their stable veteran core and club president Garth Lagerwey’s savvy roster building.

Now may well be time for the Sounders to take off the water wings and nudge these youngsters out of the harbor. It will almost surely cost them a few results here and there, as is normal with players of their age. But they’ve earned the opportunity to work through those moments in search of first-team rhythm. And as fellow travelers along the same path, Vargas, Atencio and Leyva are uniquely positioned to push one another toward their best levels.

Sounders supporters aren’t as accustomed to the ups and downs of the “Play Your Kids” lifestyle as their counterparts in Dallas, Philadelphia and Salt Lake; maybe now they’ll get to invent their own Cascadian spin on that experience, too.