It’s a decision that’s paid off in a big way to this point, as they are the lone MLS team left in the Champions Division heading into Thursday’s semifinal match against West Ham.
Thanks to the team’s vast improvement at the youth levels, five pro signees were eligible for this week’s competition: Tacoma Defiance-signed players Ray Serrano Lopez, Joshua Atencio, Daniel Robles and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez and recent first-team signing Danny Leyva.
The quintet was all rostered and traveled to the GA Cup, seeing heavy minutes throughout the week, while playing massive roles in the team’s run.
Ocampo-Chavez has scored all six of Seattle’s goals through five matches, including a hat trick against West Ham United in the semifinals. Leyva assisted on the game-winning goal in Sunday’s win against Flamengo, and has shown the quality that earned a first-team contract earlier this month in central midfield. Atencio, who has ample experience as a defensive midfielder, has been a rock as he looks to get experience in central defense. Serrano Lopez and Robles have buzzed around, looking to add quality and create chances in the final third.
“We agreed as a technical committee at the club that this was a priority for those players, to be tested,” Sounders Academy Director Marc Nicholls told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s also fun. These are young people, they are playing knockout, penalties, playing teams from all over the world, exposure to national team coaches. There’s more to it than that, but obviously the expectation is when you sign pro, people say ‘okay I can see why,’ so there’s a little bit of pressure [as well]. And that pressure, that’s the reality of the game.”
The Sounders’ Under-17 side faced plenty of pressure this week, starting from their very first day of the competition. After an opening game defeat against Valencia on Sunday, Seattle was in must-win territory to stabilize their chances of advancing against Flamengo that evening. They came through in the next two group games, thanks in part to Ocampo-Chavez’s winning goals against the Brazilian side and the Montreal Impact. That nudged Seattle into second place in Group D.
Lining up against yet another storied opponent in River Plate in Tuesday’s quarterfinal, Seattle’s prospects rose to the challenge once again. Leyva continued to dictate the tempo and run things in midfield, while Atencio and goalkeeper Conrad Lee made crucial interventions to keep it scoreless. That set the platform for Ocampo-Chavez’s third game winner of the week, getting an assist from midfielder Chris Hegardt.
Seattle dominated West Ham on Thursday, winning 4-0, to become the first MLS team to reach the Champions Division final under the current format.
Putting players into the high-intensity matches is exactly what Nicholls hoped for at the start of the tournament, which served as a driving factor to bring in so many players who had already signed.
“We’re not tested enough on a week-to-week basis, it’s the reality,” he said. “It’s not assigning blame, it’s our reality. Our players need to be tested more, they need to be held more accountable like they were this morning. Because it gives them the opportunity to step up like they did.”
Game-winning moments can come from any of the 11 players on the field. But this week has already shown that if the Sounders are to become the first MLS side to win a Champions Division at the Generation adidas Cup, one of its five pro signees will need to be a difference-maker. Their next opportunity comes against Valencia in the semifinals on Saturday day (7 pm ET | Twitch).