TUKWILA, Wash. – As a club, the Seattle Sounders have been talking about their youth movement for a long time.
When he took the job in 2015, general manager Garth Lagerwey said overhauling Seattle’s youth development system was one of his top priorities, laying out a five-year plan for stacking the club’s academy and USL affiliate, Tacoma Defiance, with homegrown talent that could eventually crack the first team.
It’s now year No. 5 of that project, and while Lagerwey says he expects his team to continue to rely on many of the proven veteran faces who won MLS Cups in 2016 and 2019, he’s hoping 2020 will be his most fruitful year yet with integrating young talent to the MLS level.
“Right now, our best young players are 17 years old,” Lagerwey said at Seattle’s first training session of the year at Starfire Sports Complex on Tuesday. “And all over the world, that’s about where they start to break in. We’ll be patient and we’ll try to do it in a way that’s sustainable, but certainly that is a big part of our future. But likewise, we won the title with a very veteran, established group and we’ve been to three out of the last four finals, and no one is pushing those guys out the door. Honestly, we’re trying to have our cake and eat it too.
“What we said in the offseason is this: We said we’ve got a really good first team, we’ve got really good player development. Our challenge for the next couple years is let’s link those trains. And if we can link those trains and we can get them pulling together, now we can be really dynamic, now we can take it to the next level.”
There are two obvious names to watch for when it comes to Sounders’ youngsters who could earn significant minutes in 2020.
The first is midfielder Danny Leyva, who burst onto the scene during last year’s preseason at age 15 and became the club’s youngest-ever Homegrown when he signed in April. He only played 413 MLS minutes in 2019, but possesses immense upside and never looks out of his depth.
The next is Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, a 17-year-old forward and the star of Seattle’s 2018 US Soccer Development Academy side that won the national championship. Ocampo-Chavez landed a first-team contract of his own not long after Leyva, appearing in three MLS matches.
“Danny Leyva and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez had, I think, six or seven starts together last year,” Lagerwey said. “We want that to go up.”
Beyond those two, Lagerwey said there’s no limit on how many players from the academy or Defiance they’ll give an opportunity, so long as it’s been earned on the training ground.
As it stands, the Sounders begin Concacaf Champions League play Feb. 20 at Olimpia with a few departing players from last year’s title-winning squad still yet to be replaced. In the short term, Seattle could need some youngsters to contribute immediately.
“It’s not just [Leyva and Ocampo-Chavez] that we’re excited about,” Lagerwey said. “We’re excited about at least half a dozen, maybe more than that, of those kids. I think there are kids in our group, on that field today, that are going to be signed to the Sounders by opening day.
“I’m not going to guarantee that, it’s up to them, they have to come prove it against the men. But Danny Leyva did last year. There’s no reason somebody can’t do it again. Every year as we kind of tick over and tick over, we’re going to have more and more involvement and inclusion and this is going to become normalized in terms of what we do."